Civil Forfeiture Claim Stemming from Birmingham Drug Case Remanded

When people are arrested for drug-related offenses, they are subject not only to criminal penalties but also potentially civil forfeitures, as defined both under federal law and Ala. Code 20-2-93.

The forfeiture statute in Alabama is quite broad, providing that any property obtained or used in the course of illegal activity may be subject to seizure.

Recent rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court may allow municipalities even greater power in exercising seizures. That means there could be more at stake in your case, and consultation with an experienced Birmingham drug defense attorney is in your best interest.

The two most recent cases are Ervin v. City of Birmingham and City of Birmingham v. Alexander.

The Ervin case came first, when a defendant appealed the city's forfeiture action, stemming from alleged drug activities that resulted in the seizure of $179,000 of cash.

Essentially, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration learned that the defendant had been dealing cocaine in the Birmingham area since sometime in 1997. Officers with the Birmingham Police Department began conducting surveillance at his apartment complex in February 2006. Officers spotted three suspicious men, and then heard the sound of a handgun being “chambered” with a round of ammunition.

Officers then identified themselves and asked who had the gun. A suspect, later identified as the defendant, removed the gun from his waistband, pointed at the officers and filed several shots. He and two others then fled on foot.

One of the men was immediately caught. Another was found a short time later inside a nearby grocery store. And the third, this defendant, was found several blocks away.

Officers impounded the vehicle the three men had been in and later searched it, finding a total of $179,000 worth of cash, bundled in rubber bands.

Subsequently, the DEA filed a civil forfeiture action in federal court, seeking to keep the cash. The defendant argued that the cash had initially been seized by local police, with a warrant from a circuit judge. Therefore, he asserted the case should have been heard locally. He later withdrew his complaint, and the federal district entered a final judgment in favor of the government. He did not appeal that ruling, and as part of the equitable sharing of that seizure, the city was granted the majority of that money.

Later, the defendant filed a complaint for return of that money from the city, alleging it had been seized under state statutes and that because state forfeiture proceedings were never initiated, he should be entitled to a return of the cash.

The city filed a motion to dismiss or grant a summary judgment. The circuit court granted the city's motion for summary judgment, finding that the federal district court had properly exercised its jurisdiction.

He filed a motion to reconsider, which the court denied. He then appealed the case to the state supreme court, which granted review. The state supreme court noted that the action by the drug case defendant amounts to an attack in a state court on a final judgment issued by a federal court. The court indicated that he hadn't appealed or challenged the federal action.

The court held that even if all of his assertions were correct, they came too late and were being brought in the wrong court. As such, the judgment was affirmed.

In light of this ruling, the city appealed the affirmance of a summary judgment in favor of another drug defendant in a different civil forfeiture case. In the Alexander claim, officials with the DEA and the Birmingham Police Department executed a search warrant on the defendant's home, finding marijuana, cocaine, digital scales, a gun and $39,000 cash.

A federal claim for cash via civil forfeiture was filed in federal court. The defense failed to respond to the complaint, and the federal court entered a default judgment on the matter.

The defendant then filed a complaint in circuit court, seeking return of the money because no state forfeiture or condemnation proceeding had taken place, as required by statute. The Court of Civil Appeals granted his request.

Then the Ervin decision was made. Given the similar scope of the claims and the recent ruling in Ervin, the state supreme court reversed the appellate judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Although these are not technically criminal cases, they are directly tied to alleged criminal conduct. It's imperative that defendants in these cases not ignore the filings, and ask their defense attorney for guidance on the matter of civil forfeiture claims.

If you have been arrested for a drug crime in Birmingham, contact Drug Crime Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.