Wednesday, May 19, 2004

In Collazos v. United States, decided on May 18, 2004, the Second Circuit was presented with its first opportunity to interpret the disentitlement provision of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. Collazos is a Colombian national, who appears to have been involved in money laundering in the United States. The government brought an in rem forfeiture action against the contents of an account that she had with Prudential Securities, which were allegedly connected to her money laundering activities. Collazos also had criminal problems, including state charges in Texas and federal charges in Florida. She chose not to come into the United States to confront those charges. The government sought to dismiss her claim in the forfeiture action on the ground that as a person who refused to enter the United States to answer pending criminal charges, she was not entitled to be heard in a related criminal proceeding. The District Court granted the government's motion, and Collazos appealed.

Collazos asserted that 28 U.S.C. 2466, which is entitled "Fugitive disentitlement" cannot be applied to her because she is not a "fugitive" as that term is understood at common law. She claimed that in order to be a fugitive, one must have been present in the United States at the time the crime was committed and fled the jurisdiction. Collazos had not been in the United States since 1977.

The Second Circuit noted that while the title of the statute contained the word "fugitive," that word is not found in the text of the statute. The text of the statute, on its face, applied to persons who had never been in the United States, but who knew they were subject to arrest in the United States and who refused to enter the country to avoid prosecution. Hence, the statute applied to Collazos.

The Court further noted that the Supreme Court in 1996 had held that a court, through its inherent authority, could not apply the common law fugitive disentitlement doctrine against a criminal defendant in a civil forfeiture action. Congress, however, conferred statutory authority to order disentitlement in civil forfeiture cases. The statutory authority was not limited to common law fugitives.

The Court rejected Collazos's contention that disentitlement violated due process. She was not denied a right to be heard. All she had to do was enter the country. Her failure to comply with that statutory requirement caused the Court to dismiss her claim in the forfeiture action. In addition, the Court noted that Collazos had had notice of the government's motion and could have been heard as to her position as to whether she met the statutory requirements for disentitlement. And, as disentitlement was not mandatory, she was also free to present such evidence as would show that justice would not be served by disentitlement.

Judge Katzmann concurred with the majority decision and wrote a concurring opinion in which he noted that the legislative history suggested that the intention of the legislature in enacting the disentitlement statute was to reinstate the common law doctrine, not to broaden it. He agreed with the majority, however, that the plain statutory language mandated the result reached by the majority.

The decision in this case can be found here. Judge Katzmann's concurring opinion can be found on the Second Circuit website.

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