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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that Time Limit for Statutory Time Limit for the Government to File Forfeiture Claim was Procedural, rather than a Limitation on the Courtís Subject Matter Jurisdiction

United States v. Wilson
No. 11-1821 (4th Cir. Nov. 8, 2012)

by Wayne Heavener, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In United States v. Wilson, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed an order denying Donald Wilson's motion to vacate a judgment of forfeiture. The Fourth Circuit had previously affirmed the United States District Courtís entry of a forfeiture judgment against Mr. Wilson for $13,963.00 that law enforcement officers had seized in connection with Mr. Wilsonís drug trafficking. After the judgment was entered, Mr. Wilson moved to vacate the forfeiture on the grounds that the government had failed to file its complaint within the statutory 90-day time limit. 18 U.S.C. ß 983(a)(3). The United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia disagreed, and denied Mr. Wilsonís FED. R. CIV. P. 60(b)(4) motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that Section 983ís time limit was not a jurisdictional requirement in the district court; therefore, Mr. Wilson forfeited his argument when he failed to raise it during the initial forfeiture proceedings.

On October 27, 2006, law enforcement officers arrested Mr. Wilson on three warrants charging him with drug-trafficking crimes. Upon his arrest, officers seized $13,963.00 on Mr. Wilsonís person. The Drug Enforcement Administration commenced an administrative forfeiture action against the seized money, and Mr. Wilson filed a claim for its return. Mr. Wilson's claim triggered the 90-day time limit for the United States to file a formal complaint for civil forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. ß 983(a)(3). The government filed its complaint twenty (20) days late; nevertheless, the clerk of the court issued a warrant for the arrest of the currency in rem, which the U.S. Marshal duly executed. Appearing pro se before the United States District Court, Mr. Wilson asserted that the $13,963.00 came from legitimate sources of income. The court disagreed, finding that the money was substantially connected to Mr. Wilson's drug activities. The District Court entered summary judgment of forfeiture, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on September 1, 2010.

After the Fourth Circuit entered its mandate, Mr. Wilson filed a motion to give relief from the court's judgment as void, pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 60(b)(4). Mr. Wilson alleged that the court improperly entered the forfeiture judgment because the United States filed its complaint outside of the 18 U.S.C. ß983(a)(3) deadline; therefore, he argued, the court lacked jurisdiction. In response, the government argued that the Section 983 deadline was not jurisdiction, but rather a statute of limitations argument that Mr. Wilson had foregone by not raising during the course of the forfeiture proceedings. The United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia held that Section 983's 90-day time limit was not jurisdictional, and denied Mr. Wilson's Rule 60(b)(4) motion. Mr. Wilson timely filed an appeal, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals appointed counsel to represent him.

The Court affirmed the district courtís decision, finding that Mr. Wilson had forfeited his timeliness objection. The Court reduced the question to one of subject matter jurisdiction. If Section 983's 90-day time limit was a condition of the district court's subject matter jurisdiction, then Mr. Wilson was entitled to an order vacating the judgment of forfeiture. However, if the 90-day requirement was not a condition for the district court's subject matter jurisdiction, Mr. Wilson forfeited his objection when he failed to raise it during the initial proceedings. The Court ultimately found that Congress had not indicated that the procedural rule of Section 983 was a condition on the court's jurisdiction. The Court pointed out that the language of the provision itself permitted parties to extend the deadline by agreement, and parties cannot typically define the scope of the district court's authority to hear a case. Therefore, the provision could not have been intended by Congress to set limits upon the courtís subject matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, the court's jurisdictional bounds with respect to forfeiture actions is defined in Title 28, not Title 18; therefore, the Court was unwilling to find that Congress intended to limit the court's jurisdiction by language in a separate title, which in no way explicitly refers to the jurisdiction of the court. Because Section 983ís time limit was procedural, rather than a limitation upon the courtís subject matter jurisdiction, Mr. Wilson had foregone his timeliness objection when he failed to raise it during the initial forfeiture proceedings.