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Munoz v. Attorney for the United States Executive Office

August 4, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Jones)



On November 14, 1997, Fidel Munoz (hereinafter "Plaintiff" or "Munoz") was found guilty of conspiracy with intent to distribute marijuana. In connection with this conviction, a number of personal belongings were seized from him pursuant to a valid search warrant. On March 23, 1998, Plaintiff requested the return of his property pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(e), which is now Rule 41(g) ( "Rule 41(g) Motion"). This request went unanswered and prompted Plaintiff to file a second Rule 41(g) Motion on December 28, 1999. On February 2, 2000, Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA") Houser responded to Plaintiff by objecting to the return of the property, asserting that it might be needed for post-conviction processes. On February 14, 2000, Plaintiff responded to Houser's denial by requesting that the government provide him with an itemized list of his personal property which it held. On April 24, 2000, Plaintiff was notified by the Court that most of his property had been destroyed.*fn1

On April 16, 2002, Plaintiff filed a tort claim against the agencies responsible for the storage of his property, which was subsequently denied on December 13, 20002 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b)*fn2 and 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a).*fn3 Plaintiff requested a reconsideration of that denial on April 8, 2003. On June 20, 2003, Plaintiff's reconsideration request was denied with instructions that any appeal had to be filed within six months of that date.

On December 16, 2003, Plaintiff filed a complaint pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq. ("FTCA"), alleging that federal employees, while acting in the course and scope of their duties, negligently caused the destruction of his property seized pursuant to a valid search warrant.*fn4 To compensate for the loss of his property, Plaintiff seeks $15,000 in equitable damages. Plaintiff also avers that the destruction of his property constitutes a violation of his due process rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

On June 15, 2006, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ("the Motion") (doc. 37), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) ("Rule 12(b)(1)"). Defendant's Motion, which has been briefed by the parties, is ripe for disposition.


In considering a motion to dismiss, a court must accept the veracity of a plaintiff's allegations. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); see also White v. Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 106 (3d Cir. 1990). In Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996), our Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit added that in considering a motion to dismiss based on a failure to state a claim argument, a court should "not inquire whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, only whether they are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Furthermore, "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); see also District Council 47 v. Bradley, 795 F.2d 310 (3d Cir. 1986).


We initially note that Defendant brings the instant Motion two and a half years after the filing of Plaintiff's complaint. Although it would have been in the interest of judicial economy had the instant Motion been filed in a more timely manner, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit a litigant to challenge subject matter jurisdiction at any point during litigation.*fn5 Therefore, it is notable that the imprudent delay is inconsequential to the ultimate disposition of the instant Motion.

The Motion presents an interesting issue for resolution; namely, the extent to which the FTCA waives the sovereign immunity of the federal government. The FTCA waives federal sovereign immunity for monetary claims "for injury or loss of property . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act of omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment." 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671 et seq. (2006). Although broad, this waiver is not plenary. Congress preserved sovereign immunity with regard to, among other things, "any claim arising in the respect of the . . . detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property by any officer of customs or excise or any law enforcement officer." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c) (2006) ("§ 2680(c)"). The only exception to this retention of sovereign immunity arises in the context of asset forfeiture, 28 U.S.C. § 2680 (c)(1)-(4) (2006), which is a circumstance not presently at issue.

In regards to 28 U.S.C. § 2680(c), the issue of semantics is one that courts have historically been forced to resolve during the course of adjudication, and it is a task that this Court cannot escape. Defendant is correct in asserting that courts have broadly interpreted the phrase "arising in respect of . . . detention of any goods, merchandise, or other property" to include claims relating to the negligent handling, storage, loss, or destruction of detained property. See Kosak v. U.S., 465 U.S. 848, 854 (1983); Adeleke v. United States, 355 F.3d 144 (4th Cir. 2004); Cheney v. U.S., 972 F.2d 247, 248 (8th Cir. 1992); U.S. v. Chambers, 92 F. Supp. 2d 396, 401 (D.N.J. 2000); Haughton v. F.B.I., 1999 WL 1133346 *6 (S.D.N.Y. 1999). "Goods" have been defined as "every species of personal property." U.S. v. Greer, 2002 WL 31643018 *2-3 (D. Kan. 2002) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary, 694 (6th ed. 1991)).

Although there have been judicial disagreements regarding the scope of the phrase "law enforcement officers," courts in the Third Circuit have construed this phrase to include federal officers who are not engaged in activities related to customs or excise.*fn6 Schreiber v. U.S., 1997 WL 563338 *7 (S.D.N.Y. 1997); Garnay, Inc. v. M/V Lindo Maersk, 816 F.Supp. 888, 897 (S.D.N.Y. 1993); Rufu v. U.S., 876 F.Supp. 400, 403-406 (E.D.N.Y. 1994). In Schreiber, the Southern District of New York explained that its extension of § 2680(c) to law enforcement officers not involved in customs or excise activities was based on the conclusion that such an interpretation of the statute was consistent with Congress' objectives in creating exceptions to the FTCA.*fn7 We agree with this conclusion and the ...

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