Degen v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Virginia Military Institute

DOCKET NO.: 95-173
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 820 (1996)
ARGUED: Apr 22, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 10, 1996

Lawrence S. Robbins - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Miguel A. Estrada - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Brian Degen was indicted in 1989 for distributing marijuana, laundering money, and related crimes. On the same day the district court unsealed the indictment, it also unsealed a civil forfeiture complaint for properties allegedly worth $5.5 million and purchased with proceeds of Degen's drug sales or used to facilitate the sales. Degen is a citizen of both the U.S. and Switzerland, and in 1988 he and his family moved to Switzerland. He has not returned to the U.S. to face criminal charges and by treaty the Swiss are not obliged to extradite their nationals to the U.S. While residing in Switzerland, Degen filed an answer in the civil case, claiming that the forfeiture was barred by the statute of limitations and was an unlawful retroactive application of forfeiture laws. The district court did not consider his arguments. Instead, it entered summary judgment against him, holding that he was not entitled to be heard in the civil action because he remained outside the country, unamenable to criminal prosecution. On appeal, the government argued that the district court's inherent powers authorized it to strike Degen's claims under the "fugitive disentitlement doctrine."


Should the fugitive disentitlement doctrine be extended to allow a court in a civil forfeiture suit to enter judgment against a claimant, without any opportunity to be heard, because the claimant is a fugitive from, or otherwise is resisting, a related criminal prosecution?

Media for Degen v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 22, 1996 in Degen v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number v. United States.

Is that the correct pronunciation of your client's name, Mr. Robbins?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

Mr. Chief Justice, it's actually Mr. Degen.

William H. Rehnquist:


Very well.


Lawrence S. Robbins:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

On October 24, 1989, Federal prosecutors in Reno, Nevada commenced a civil forfeiture action against some five and a half million dollars in real and personal property owned by petitioner Brian Degen and his wife, Karen.

As the forfeiture statutes permit, Mr. Degen filed a claim for the property.

In it, he denied that the property was either the proceeds or instrumentalities of narcotics violations.

He also asserted a range of legal defenses, including that the forfeiture action was time-barred and that it rested on an ex post facto application of the forfeiture laws.

On the Government's motion, however, the district court struck Mr. Degen's claim for the property.

The court ruled that because Mr. Degen, a dual Swiss and American citizen, had not traveled to the United States to stand trial in a criminal case that had been brought against him, he was a fugitive, and as a fugitive from the criminal case, he was therefore disentitled, in the vernacular, from contesting the civil forfeiture of his property.

The district court therefore entered a judgment against Mr. Degen for the full amount of the Government's claim, some five and a half million dollars of property, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Our central submission this morning is that Federal courts and Federal judges do not have the authority to do this.

To the contrary, this extraordinary application of the fugitive disentitlement doctrine cannot be squared with this Court's disentitlement cases, it cannot be squared with due process, and it cannot be squared, most importantly, with the limitations that this Court has always recognized on the scope of the inherent powers of the Federal courts.

Antonin Scalia:

When you say it cannot be squared with due process, Mr. Robbins, do you mean that if Congress had enacted such a provision it would be unconstitutional?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

I believe it would.

I believe that Congress would not have authority to pass a statute that has done what the Federal courts in this case have done, although, Justice Scalia, if I might add, it is all the more unlawful when done by Federal courts.

William H. Rehnquist:

What leads you to think that Congress wouldn't have that authority?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

Well, I think the reason is that--

William H. Rehnquist:

I mean, are you talking about a case?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

--I'm sorry, Your--

William H. Rehnquist:

Are you talking about a decision of this Court that supports that proposition?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

--Well, I... it's... I think that the line of authority that supports the proposition is embodied, for example, in McVeigh and in Hovey v. Elliott, where the Court, in deciding that a Court lacked the power, said that not even a legislature could pass such a statute, and therefore it's all the more unconstitutional for Federal courts, or in those cases State courts, to exercise that kind of authority.

William H. Rehnquist:

Where did your client reside before he went to Switzerland?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

He lived in the United States.

William H. Rehnquist:

And when did he go to Switzerland?

Lawrence S. Robbins:

The record suggests, Mr. Chief Justice, that he went to Switzerland sometime in early 1988.

William H. Rehnquist:

And when was the indictment handed down?