communications were claimed to be in writing, the letters were
not produced. Flora and Domingo Sr. had never advertised or
offered the car for sale in the Dominican Republic and had made
no inquiries about or arrangements for transporting the car
from the United States. Although they assertedly purchased the
car for export upon Domingo Sr.'s retirement, there was no
evidence of preparations to move; Domingo Sr. has still not
quit his job and no airline reservations were made nor tickets
purchased. Flora, Domingo Sr. and Domingo Jr. knew no person
who had ever purchased a car in the United States for resale in
the Dominican Republic.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW AND ULTIMATE FINDINGS OF FACT
A forfeiture proceeding is an in rem action brought against
seized property pursuant to the legal fiction that the property
itself is guilty of facilitating the crime. See Calero-Toledo
v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 680-84, 94 S.Ct.
2080, 2090-92, 40 L.Ed.2d 452 (1974). To contest a forfeiture
action, an individual must first demonstrate an interest in the
seized property sufficient to satisfy the court of his standing
as a claimant. See United States v. Three Hundred Sixty Four
Thousand Nine Hundred Sixty Dollars in U.S. Currency,
661 F.2d 319, 326 (5th Cir. 1981). Such standing is a threshold issue
and, if the claimant lacks standing, the court lacks
jurisdiction to consider his challenge of the forfeiture. See
Mercado v. United States Customs Service, et al., 873 F.2d 641,
644 (2d Cir. 1989); United States v. Five Hundred Thousand
Dollars, 730 F.2d 1437, 1439 (11th Cir. 1984). The burden of
proof to establish sufficient standing in forfeiture actions
rests with the claimant. See Mercado, 873 F.2d at 644.
To establish standing in a civil forfeiture action, the
claimant must demonstrate a possessory or ownership interest in
the subject property. See United States v. Five Hundred
Thousand Dollars, 730 F.2d at 1439; United States v. One 1945
Douglas C-54 (DC-4) Aircraft, (Appeal 1), 604 F.2d 27, 28 (8th
Cir. 1979). While ownership may be proven by actual possession,
dominion, control, title and financial stake, "[t]he possession
of bare legal title to the res may be insufficient," absent
other evidence of control or dominion over the property. United
States v. One 1945 Douglas, (Appeal 1), 604 F.2d at 28-29;
United States v. One 1945 Douglas, (Appeal 2), 647 F.2d 864,
866 (8th Cir. 1981); United States v. One 1977 36 Foot
Cigarette Ocean Racer, 624 F. Supp. 290, 294-95 (S.D.Fla. 1985);
United States v. One 1980 Chevrolet Blazer Automobile,
572 F. Supp. 994, 996-97 (E.D.N.Y. 1983); United States v. One 1981
Datsun 280 ZX, 563 F. Supp. 470, 474 (E.D.Pa. 1983).
The rationale for the rule that bare legal title may be
insufficient is that appearances may be manipulated and
deceptive, especially in the world of drug trafficking and
other illegal operations. It has been recognized that people
engaged in illegal activities, especially when needing to
conceal illegitimate funds and being aware of forfeiture
statutes, often attempt to disguise their interests in property
by not placing title in their own names. See United States v.
One 1977 36 Foot Cigarette Ocean Racer, 624 F. Supp. at 294-95.
A search for standing in civil forfeiture cases looks beyond
the formal title to determine whether the record owner is the
"real" owner or merely a "strawman" set up either to conceal
illegal dealings or to avoid forfeiture.
In United States v. $280,505 Dollars, 655 F. Supp. 1487, 1495
(S.D.Fla. 1986), it was held that the claimant, named on the
certificate of title with her son, lacked standing to challenge
the forfeiture of a vehicle because she had no possession or
control of the car and could not sufficiently document the
source of the money used to purchase the car. The district
court found implausible claimant's testimony that she kept the
money in a home safe even though she had a bank account. The
court, further noting that it was the son who had paid the
money to the car dealer and used the car, found claimant to be
a "straw" or
"nominal" owner of the vehicle who thus had no standing to
contest its forfeiture.
In United States v. One 1981 Datsun, 563 F. Supp. 470 (E.D.Pa.
1983), it was held that claimant lacked standing because
despite the fact that he had title to the vehicle, he neither
paid for nor exercised dominion and control over the vehicle.
And in United States v. One 1980 Chevrolet Blazer, 572 F. Supp. 994
(E.D.N.Y. 1983), the court denied standing to claimant who
introduced no evidence of ownership other than her name typed
on the back of the certificate of title but claimed she had
obtained a $10,000 loan from her late grandfather-in-law. The
court found important the "utter absence of any documentation
supporting [claimant's] story about the loan." Id. at 997.
These decisions are closely apposite to the case at bar.
Claimants here have likewise failed to demonstrate, by a
preponderance of the evidence, an interest in the seized
property sufficient to satisfy the Court that they have
standing. On the evidence presented at trial, the Court finds
that claimants were merely "nominal" owners of the Porsche and
held neither a possessory nor controlling interest in the
vehicle. The Court further finds that their testimony
concerning how they obtained the money for the purchase price
is unworthy of belief. Claimants exercised no dominion or
control over the car whatsoever, and showed little or no
interest in what would have been for them an investment of
considerable magnitude. Flora testified that she had seen the
car only once and never rode in it. Domingo Sr. testified that
he had ridden in the vehicle only once. Domingo Sr.'s testimony
that he gave money to Domingo Jr. to cover part of the cost of
painting the car was not convincing, particularly in view of
the fact that there was no documentary record, and Domingo Sr.
could not remember the amount advanced.
As to the Dominican Republic inheritance and property sale,
there is a complete absence of documentation. There is no
evidence of the property's existence, of its bequest to Flora
or of its sale to her nephew. Claimants' assertion that the
funds were hidden in their home despite their existing active
bank accounts is not credible. As for the Medina loan and the
Domingo Jr. transfer, there is similarly not a shred of
documentary corroboration. The Court finds that Domingo Jr.'s
testimony that he obtained the money from insurance proceeds
and savings is not believable in view of all the other
evidence, including his earnings history and bank statements.
The Court concludes that claimants have no financial stake in
the Porsche sufficient to confer standing to challenge its
If a claimant establishes standing, then it is the
government's burden to show probable cause that the subject
property was involved in unlawful activity of the type defined
by the statute under which the suit is brought. The Court finds
now, as it did after hearing the government's case in chief,
that probable cause had been established because DEA special
agents acted upon Domingo Jr.'s post-arrest statements that the
Porsche belonged to him and that he had bought it with drug
proceeds, as well as information from a confidential informant
that Domingo Jr. owned and drove a blue Porsche, hearsay
admissible in a forfeiture proceeding, see United States v. One
56 Foot Yacht Named the Tahuna, 702 F.2d 1276, 1283-84 (9th
Once the government shows probable cause, the burden of proof
shifts to the claimant to establish, by a preponderance of the
evidence, that the seized property does not constitute proceeds
traceable to exchanges of controlled substances. See United
States v. Banco Cafetero, 797 F.2d 1154, 1160-61 (2nd Cir.
1986); United States v. $131,602 in U.S. Currency, 563 F. Supp. 921,
923 (S.D.N.Y. 1982). Even if claimants had established
standing, they have not met this burden. Claimants' testimony,
as discussed above, is not believable. In the words of the
Sixth Circuit Court, "[A] remote possibility does not vitiate a
strong probability, and neither will it create a preponderance
of evidence against a far
more reasonable conclusion." United States v. $83,320 in United
States Currency, 682 F.2d 573, 577-78 (6th Cir. 1982).
For the reasons stated above, judgment will be entered for
plaintiff and the Porsche will be declared forfeit pursuant to
21 U.S.C. § 881 (1988).
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