Degen v. United States - 517 U.S. 820 (1996)


OCTOBER TERM, 1995

Syllabus

DEGEN v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 95-173. Argued April 22, 1996-Decided June 10, 1996

Petitioner Degen is outside the United States and cannot be extradited to face federal drug charges. When he filed an answer in a related civil action, contesting the Government's attempt to forfeit properties allegedly purchased with proceeds from his drug dealings, the District Court struck his claims and entered summary judgment against him, holding that he was not entitled to be heard in the forfeiture action because he remained outside the country, unamenable to criminal prosecution. The court's final order vested title to the properties in the United States, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A district court may not strike a claimant's filings in a forfeiture suit and grant summary judgment against him for failing to appear in a related criminal prosecution. Pp. 822-829.

(a) The Government contends that the District Court's inherent powers authorized it to strike Degen's claims under what has been labeled the "fugitive disentitlement doctrine." Principles of deference counsel restraint in resorting to the courts' inherent authority to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities, see, e. g., Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U. S. 32, 44, and require its use to be a reasonable response to the problems and needs provoking it, Ortega-Rodriguez v. United States, 507 U. S. 234, 244. Pp. 822-824.

(b) No necessity justifies disentitlement here. Since the court's jurisdiction over the property is secure despite Degen's absence, there is no risk of delay or frustration in determining the merits of the Government's forfeiture claims or in enforcing the resulting judgment. The court has alternatives, other than the harsh sanction of disentitlement, to keep Degen from using liberal civil discovery rules to gain an improper advantage in the criminal prosecution, where discovery is more limited. Disentitlement also is too arbitrary a means of redressing the indignity visited upon the court by Degen's absence from the criminal proceedings and deterring flight from criminal prosecution by Degen and others. A court's dignity derives from the respect accorded its judgments. That respect is eroded, not enhanced, by excessive


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recourse to rules foreclosing consideration of claims on the merits. Pp.824-829.

47 F.3d 1511, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Lawrence S. Robbins argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs were Andrew L. Frey, Alan E. Untereiner, and Daniel W Stewart.

Miguel A. Estrada argued the cause for the United States.

With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben. *

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we consider whether a United States District Court may strike the filings of a claimant in a forfeiture suit and grant summary judgment against him for failing to appear in a related criminal prosecution. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held this to be a proper exercise of the District Court's inherent authority. We reverse.

A federal grand jury in Nevada indicted Brian Degen for distributing marijuana, laundering money, and related crimes. On the same day in 1989 that it unsealed the indictment, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada also unsealed a civil forfeiture complaint. The Government sought to forfeit properties in California, Nevada, and Hawaii, allegedly worth $5.5 million and purchased with proceeds of Degen's drug sales or used to facilitate the sales. 84 Stat. 1276, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§ 881(a)(6)-(a)(7). An affidavit by an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency accompanied the complaint and recounted instances of Degen's alleged drug smuggling during the previous 20 years.

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for Public Citizen by Alan B. Morrison and Allison M. Zieve; and for Ghaith R. Pharaon by Richard F. Lawler.


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Full Text of Opinion

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