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Administrative Forfeiture of Assets Requires Notice

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an evidentiary hearing must be held to determine if constitutional notice was given by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to administratively forfeit $13,000. That holding comes after a Mississippi federal district court held the DEA gave notice that was “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise” Terrell Marta Taylor of the forfeiture.

The case started after Taylor was pulled over by a DEA agent on March 22, 2001, in Biloxi, Mississippi. A search of his car netted a large amount of cocaine base and $13,000 in cash. Agents also seized a Rolex ring and a cell phone Taylor was carrying. After they gave him a ride to his home, agents received consent to search Taylor’s apartment. There, they seized two guns, a microwave oven, and other items they believed related to narcotics distribution.

On April 24, DEA began administrative forfeiture proceedings for the $13,000. DEA sent certified notices to an address it had no information that Taylor lived at and one to a Biloxi lawyer. It also published notice in the Wall Street Journal on three consecutive weeks. When the DEA heard nothing, it declared on July 10 the $13,000 forfeited.

On August 22, Taylor was charged in a two-count indictment. He ultimately pled to possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of cocaine base, receiving 30 months. Because the money had been forfeited, the district court dismissed a count for forfeiture. After sentencing, Taylor moved to return his seized property. The district converted the motion to a civil action, but denied return of the $13,000 while ordering all other property to be returned. Taylor appealed.

The sole issue before the Fifth Circuit was whether Taylor received “constitutionally adequate notice of the administrative forfeiture of $13,000.” The court held it is unclear if he did.

The first notice was sent to the residence of his mother and sister. They submitted affidavits that they never received the certified notice. Notwithstanding that assertion, the court held the DEA knew where Taylor lived; thus it “ignored correct information it had and sent notice to another address.” The DEA offered no explanation for sending notice to an address different from Taylor’s known address. It had no evidence that Taylor ever lived at the residence notice was sent to, and notice provided to a claimant’s sister has been held to be insufficient to pass constitutional muster.

The court held an evidentiary hearing is required to determine when the Biloxi attorney began to represent Taylor. According to Taylor, the attorney did not begin representation until six months after the notice was mailed. The DEA has the burden to contradict Taylor’s factual assertions.

As such, the district court’s order was reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing. See: Taylor v. United States, 483 F.3d 385 (5th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Taylor v. United States