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United States v. $671

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 18, 2013

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
$671, 160.00 in U.S. Currency, Defendant, and Mike Ionita, Claimant-Appellant.

Submitted August 9, 2013 [*] Pasadena, California

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California George H. Wu, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:10-cv-08934-GW-AGR

Paul L. Gabbert, Santa Monica, California, for Claimant-Appellant.

Katharine Schonbachler, Assistant United States Attorney; Steven R. Welk, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Asset Forfeiture Section; Robert E. Dugdale, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Criminal Division; André Birotte, Jr., United States Attorney, United States Attorneys' Office, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before: Richard C. Tallman, Richard R. Clifton, and Consuelo M. Callahan, Circuit Judges.

SUMMARY[**]

Civil Forfeiture / Fugitive Disentitlement Statute

The panel affirmed the district court's dismissal, based on the Fugitive Disentitlement Statute, of Mike Ionita's verified claim to $671, 170 in currency seized from a vehicle rented by Ionita, and the resulting default judgment in favor of the United States.

The panel held that Ionita, who returned to his home in Canada before a criminal complaint was filed in California in this case, met the statutory definition of a fugitive from justice. The panel held that the totality of the circumstances supported the district court's conclusion that Ionita had intentionally declined to return to the United States so as to avoid submitting to the jurisdiction of the California courts and consequently facing the criminal charges pending against him, and as a result Ionita was a fugitive under 28 U.S.C. § 2466. The panel also held that the district court did not err in denying Ionita's request to convert the government's motion to strike into a motion for summary judgment. Finally, the panel declined to address Ionita's remaining arguments because they were barred by the Fugitive Disentitlement Statute, which prohibits him from litigating issues related to his pending criminal case without subjecting himself to the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County criminal court.

OPINION

TALLMAN, Circuit Judge:

This case involves the forfeiture of $671, 170 in currency seized from a vehicle rented by Mike Ionita, a Canadian citizen. On the government's motion, the district court invoked the Fugitive Disentitlement Statute, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2466, [1] to strike Ionita's claim to the funds. Through an attorney, Ionita appeals the district court's dismissal of his verified claim and answer, and the resulting default judgment in favor of the United States, contending that he does not meet the statutory definition of a fugitive from justice. We conclude that he does. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we AFFIRM.

I

Ionita was watched by Anaheim police officers exchanging luggage with a known narcotics dealer in the parking lot of a local hotel. The officers called for a marked police car to initiate a traffic stop, and a subsequent search of Ionita's vehicle revealed substantial amounts of currency in the trunk. Ionita insisted that the money was not his and that he had no idea how it got there or to whom it belonged. The money was seized, Ionita was released, and he later returned to Canada.

On November 19, 2010, the government commenced an in rem civil forfeiture action pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) against $671, 160 in U.S. currency seized from Ionita's rental car. The government contended that the money was subject to forfeiture on the grounds that the funds represented or were traceable to proceeds of illegal narcotics trafficking, or were intended to be used in one or more exchanges for a controlled substance or listed chemical in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841, et seq.

A

The government detailed in its civil complaint the events leading to the seizure of the defendant currency from Ionita on May 27, 2010. In relevant part, it alleged that "[i]n May 2010, Ionita was identified as a member of a Canadian based narcotics trafficking organization responsible for transporting large sums of U.S. currency within the ...


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