United States v. Von Neumann

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Inland Empire Lighthouse for the Blind

DOCKET NO.: 84-1144
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 474 US 242 (1986)
ARGUED: Nov 04, 1985
DECIDED: Jan 14, 1986

Alan I. Horowitz - on behalf of the Petitioner
Charles L. Birke - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Von Neumann

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 04, 1985 in United States v. Von Neumann

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Horowitz, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Alan I. Horowitz:

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

The question in this case, in essence, is whether the Customs Services routine administration of its civil forfeiture responsibilities violates the constitutional rights of persons whose property has been lawfully seized for violating the customs laws.

Specifically, the issue concerns the effects, if any, of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment on the administrative consideration of a petition for remission or mitigation that is filed in connection with a seizure for civil forfeiture.

Here, for failure to declare an automobile to customs upon entry into the United States.

Pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 1618, an individual who has an item seized for forfeiture, even if the item is unquestionably bought, may file petition for remission or mitigation with the Secretary of the Treasury, seeking to have all of part of the forfeiture remitted.

The Secretary has set up certain internal procedures for processing these petitions.

In the ordinary course the Agency will consider and rule on the petition, giving its ruling to the Claimant.

If the Secretary determines that remission is appropriate and the claimant agrees to the terms of the proposed remission, the matter is settled without a judicial proceeding.

Ninety-five percent of remission petitions filed in car seizure cases are settled in this fashion.

If there is no agreement on remission, either because the Secretary determines that remission is not appropriate or because the claimant is unsatisfied with the terms upon which remission is offered, then the case proceeds to a judicial, or for small cases, an administrative proceeding in which the forfeitability of the item is determined.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Horowitz, is the remission proceeding basically used as a statutory authorization to customs people to just settle these cases?

Is that what it boils down to, they have settlement authority, in effect?

Alan I. Horowitz:

Well, they have settlement authority.

I guess in some ways it's used that way, although they're not the prosecuting authority.

It's an agency thing.

They're not the prosecutor.

But, settlement is part of it.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I mean, it just seems to operate as a practical matter--

Alan I. Horowitz:


Sandra Day O'Connor:

--As agency settlement of a potential forfeiture?

Alan I. Horowitz:

Yes, I would agree as a practical matter, that's basically how it operates.

The reason I hesitate to agree completely is, it is possible to get remission even after the forfeiture proceeding has occurred, in which case there would no longer be a settlement.

It would surely be a matter of executive grace there.

But, naturally the government is more reluctant to grant remission under those circumstances and therefore it's to the advantage of claimants to have their remission petitions decided on by the Agency before there's been a judicial proceeding.

The background facts may be briefly stated as follows: On January 20th, 1975, Respondent attempted to bring across the Canadian border into the United States a new Jaguar that he had purchased in Europe.

When asked at the U.S. Customs station whether he had anything to declare, he failed to declare the car and it was then seized as forfeitable under 19 U.S.C. 1497.

Respondent then completed, with the assistance of the Customs agent on duty there, a brief handwritten petition for remission in which he stated that he had no intention to avoid customs duty.

The Customs agent then helped Respondent arrange transportation to a local hotel where he stayed overnight, and from there he arranged to get home in his private plane that was waiting for him in Seattle.

Two weeks later Customs returned Respondent's car upon his posting of a bond for the value of the car, assessed at $24,500.