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United States v. Leasehold Interest in 121 Nostrand Avenue

    Brief Fact Summary. A member of a large household sold drugs, and under a federal statute, the government attempted to evict the entire household.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A defense to the drug forfeiture statutes is the innocent owner defense, which allows the claimant to retain the property if he or she can establish lack of knowledge of narcotics activity or that there was no consent to the activity.

    Facts. A great-grandmother, Mrs. Clara Smith, lived with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in an apartment. The family lives in poverty, but they are better off in the apartment than on the streets or in shelters. An undercover police officer purchased drugs from one of her granddaughters. A search of the house was conducted, and police found crack and determined the home was used to store drugs. The civil drug forfeiture statute creates an in rem cause of action for violations of narcotics laws. It allows the government, on finding a sufficient nexus between drug activity and the property itself, to obtain forfeiture of the property. Forfeiture is warranted if the property is used to make drug activity easier. The government seeks to evict Mrs. Smith and her family from their home under this statute.

    Issue. If an owner does not know of narcotics activity taking place on her property and would not give consent to the activity had she known, can that owner be evicted from her property under the drug forfeiture statute?

    Held. No.
    The civil drug forfeiture statute creates an in rem cause of action for violations of narcotics laws. The formal defendant is the apartment. If the government succeeds in the forfeiture proceeding, it receives all interest in the property.
    Forfeiture is a powerful weapon in the war on drugs because it seizes the profits and proceeds of illegal drug activity. Property is subject to forfeiture upon a showing of probable cause that it was used to facilitate a narcotics crime.
    The statute enables the government to removes residents from their homes without proving at least that that it is more likely than not that they engaged in, or permitted, drug-related criminal activity on the premises.
    Here, the granddaughter admitted to selling crack, which is sufficient to establish grounds for forfeiture.
    A claimant can defend against forfeiture by proving that that the illegal use was without her knowledge or consent, which is the innocent owner defense. This way, she will not lose her property. The lack of knowledge prong is construed to mean lack of willful blindness. The absence of consent prong requires a claimant to show that he did that reasonably could be expected to prevent the illegal activity once she learned of it. Here, the claimant established both prongs.
    When the claimant was presented with anonymous charges of drug trafficking in her home, she investigated the allegations on her own. She confronted her family and took steps to prevent visitors from engaging in drug dealing.
    Mrs. Smith had many other burdens in the home, so she could easily have been unaware of the illegal activities. Her family knew she was against drug use, so it is reasonable to assume her kids would keep it secret from her. She has established the innocent owner defense and is entitled to keep her apartment.

    Discussion. The purpose of the innocent owner defense is to protect family members who have nothing to do with the narcotics crime. The court believes that most drug users are from poor neighborhoods, so evicting an entire family for the wrongdoing of one person would be against the welfare of the poor, because they would end up living in the streets or in shelters.


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