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U.S. v. Stazola

filed: January 8, 1990.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ANTHONY STAZOLA. A/K/A ANTHONY STAZOLA, LAVINIA GIBBONS AND SYLVESTER MILLER APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Criminal No. 89-00064-01

Sloviter, Scirica and Nygaard, Circuit Judges.

Author: Scirica

Opinion OF THE COURT

SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

This case involves the federal government's effort to evict two tenants from a property forfeited by Anthony Stazola under the criminal forfeiture provision of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. 21 U.S.C. § 853 (Supp. V 1987). The district court found that the tenants failed to prove that their possessory interest in the premises extended beyond November 30, 1989, and ordered the tenants to vacate. The tenants appeal the order.

We find that the district court provided the tenants with the same degree of notice and opportunity to be heard as the tenants would have been entitled to under state law. Moreover, we hold that the district court had the authority to order the eviction without recourse to state proceedings under 21 U.S.C. § 853(g) (Supp. V 1987), which authorizes the court to take any action necessary to protect United States' interests in forfeited property. We will affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

On May 15, 1989, Anthony Stazola pleaded guilty to various drug charges and, in accordance with 21 U.S.C. § 853(a),*fn1 agreed to forfeit certain of his properties, including the building in which appellants, Lavinia Gibbons and Sylvester Miller, reside. Gibbons has lived in the building's third floor apartment since September 1988. She paid $125 in rent each month to Anthony Stazola until September 1989, when she began withholding payment, which she claims was due to poor conditions in the building and the uncertainty regarding its ownership. Miller, who has lived in the second floor apartment since 1977, began withholding his $125 per month rent in September 1989, allegedly for the same reasons. Both tenants claim a possessory interest in the property under a month-to-month oral lease.

On August 11, 1989, the district court ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to seize and dispose of the forfeited property, as required by 21 U.S.C. § 853(g), (h).*fn2 An inspection by the Marshals revealed that the building lacked gas and heat and that the electrical service had been terminated. The Marshals found that the tenants operated their electrical appliances by means of an extension cord connected to an illegal tap into the electric company lines. On October 12, 1989, the Marshals issued a notice to the occupants, demanding their immediate evacuation and warning that failure to comply within ten days would result in eviction. The notice explained that evacuation was necessary because the building lacked heat, gas, and legal electrical service and thus was uninhabitable and a serious fire hazard. Moreover, the notice stated that the Marshals Service would assist the tenants in making arrangements for alternative housing with Philadelphia Family Services.

On November 3, 1989, Gibbons and Miller filed a § 853(n)(2) petition alleging a third-party interest in the forfeited property. Under 21 U.S.C. § 853(n)(2) (Supp. V 1987), any person asserting a legal interest in forfeited property may petition the court for an evidentiary hearing to determine the validity of the alleged interest. The court shall amend the forfeiture order in accordance with its findings if the petitioner proves by a preponderance of the evidence that:

(A) the petitioner has a legal right, title, or interest in the property, and such right, title, or interest renders the order of forfeiture invalid in whole or in part because the right, title, or interest was vested in the petitioner rather than the defendant or was superior to any right, title, or interest of the defendant at the time of the commission of the acts which gave rise to the forfeiture of the property under this section; or

(B) the petitioner is a bona fide purchaser for value of the right, title, or interest in the property and was at the time of purchase reasonably without cause to believe that the property was subject to forfeiture under this section. . . .

21 U.S.C. § 853(n)(6) (Supp. V 1987).

For public safety reasons, the government requested an emergency hearing on both the tenants' petition and the government's request for an eviction order. An evidentiary hearing took place on November 20 and 21, 1989, during which appellants' attorney contended that various provisions of Pennsylvania law prohibit the eviction of tenants while the premises are unfit for habitation. The government argued that Gibbons and Miller lacked an interest in the property cognizable under § 853(n)(6) and that eviction was necessary to prevent injury to property and persons living under hazardous conditions. The district court held that Gibbons and Miller failed ...


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