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State v. Crowder

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

February 11, 2019

STATE OF GEORGIA
v.
CROWDER. CROWDER
v.
STATE OF GEORGIA. STATE OF GEORGIA
v.
CROWDER.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         Following a bench trial in this in rem civil forfeiture action, the Superior Court of Clayton County awarded James L. Crowder $46, 820 in U.S. currency that law-enforcement officers seized from his daughter as she attempted to board a flight leaving Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In Case No. A18A2113, the State argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion to dismiss Crowder's answer for failure to comply with the statutory requirements for in rem forfeiture pleadings. In Case No. A18A2114, Crowder cross appeals, arguing that the court erred in failing to grant his motion to dismiss the State's complaint for insufficient service of process. And in Case No. A18A2115, the State contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion to stay the release of currency given the State's pending appeal. For the reasons set forth infra, we find that Crowder's answer failed to comply with the statutory pleading requirements for forfeiture actions, the State sufficiently effected service of process, and the trial court erred by failing to stay the release of the currency while the State's appeal was pending.

         The record shows that at approximately 8:30 a.m., on October 3, 2016, a Clayton County Police Officer on drug-interdiction duty at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport received a call from a Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") agent, informing him that a female, who was traveling alone, just passed through the main TSA security checkpoint with a carry-on bag containing a large amount of U.S. currency that she attempted to conceal. The TSA agent also provided the officers with a physical description of the woman and her departing flight's gate information. Consequently, the officer and two of his partners went to the departure gate for the woman's flight, found and approached a woman matching the TSA agent's description, identified themselves as police officers, and asked if they could speak with her about the contents of her carry-on bag.

         The woman identified herself as Shara Cumins and explained that she was returning to California after visiting some people in Alabama for a few days. The officer then asked Cumins if TSA agents located anything in her carry-on bag, and she advised that they had not. But when the officer explained to Cumins that the TSA had already informed him that she had a large amount of cash contained in her carry-on bag, Cumins admitted that she did. At this point, based on her contradictory responses about the cash, her nervous demeanor, the fact that she purchased a return flight ticket only a few days before departing, and the fact that she arrived at the airport just before her flight's departure, the officer suspected Cumins was involved in the illegal drug trade and asked her to accompany him and his partner to a nearby office for further questioning.

         Thereafter, the officer asked Cumins how much money her bag contained, and she responded that she was carrying $10, 000. The officer then asked Cumins if he could search her carry-on bag, and she consented. In the subsequent search, officers found several blocks of U.S. currency, which were wrapped in plastic and black construction paper and totaled $46, 820, but no illegal drugs or other contraband. When asked about the source of the money, Cumins replied that it was given to her by her father. Cumins then provided officers with her sister's telephone number, explaining that her father, James Crowder, lived with the sister. Subsequently, the second officer called the phone number and spoke to a man claiming to be the sister's husband, who said that the sister would return the officer's call shortly. Approximately five minutes later, Cumins's sister returned the officer's call, told the officer that her father (Crowder) was with her, and turned on her phone's speaker function so that the officer could speak with him. And when asked about the money his daughter was carrying, Crowder told the second officer that he had only given her somewhere between $2, 000 and $3, 000.

         Following this phone call, the officers confronted Cumins with Crowder's claim that he had given her no more than $3, 000, at which point Cumins stated that she was given the money to take to California but refused to identify the person who had given it to her. When pressed by the officers, Cumins claimed that this person owed her $13, 000 for transporting the money, but she continued refusing to identify the person, stating that she "did not want to tell on anybody else involved." In light of these particular circumstances, the officers requested that Cumins complete a "Disclaimer of Ownership of Assets & Waiver of Rights to Notice of Seizure Form." On that form, Cumins initially wrote that Crowder was the owner of the currency, but she provided no address for Crowder. Then, when the officers reminded her that only a few minutes earlier she claimed that her father was not the source of the currency, she scratched out his name and listed the owner, again without providing any address, as "Beatrice Longbottom." After signing the form, Cumins caught a later flight.

         Shortly thereafter, the officers filed a Notice of Seizure for Complaint for Forfeiture, and on December 6, 2016, the State filed a Complaint for Forfeiture in the Superior Court of Clayton County as to the $46, 820 seized from Cumins at the airport. As an in rem action, the complaint named the currency as the defendant, listed Cumins as the person believed to be the owner, and alleged that the currency was being used in an attempt to purchase marijuana or other controlled substances. The State served Cumins with the complaint at her residence in California, and less than one month later, she filed an answer, in which she averred that Crowder was the owner of the currency; but her answer did not provide an address for Crowder.

         On February 9, 2017, three days after Cumins filed her answer, the State filed an Amended Complaint for Forfeiture, naming Crowder as a potential claimant of the currency. Subsequently, the State attempted to personally serve Crowder at what it believed to be his last known address: 401 Melton Avenue in Opelika, Alabama, but the sheriff returned the summons non est ("not found"). Additionally, the State sent a copy of the summons and complaint to the same address via certified mail, but despite two attempts, the postal service returned the mailed documents as unclaimed. Consequently, on March 16, 2017, the State filed a motion for order of service by publication, claiming that Crowder resided out of state, that he could not be served at his last known address, and that no other address was known. A few weeks later, the trial court granted the State's motion, and the State served Crowder by publication by placing notices regarding the forfeiture in the local newspaper.

         Thereafter, in response to various discovery requests by the State, Cumins continued to assert that the currency belonged to Crowder. On August 8, 2017, the trial court scheduled a bench trial for September 26, 2017, and notified all the parties, including Crowder by sending such notice to the 401 Melton Avenue address. Later, in discovery responses dated August 25, 2017, Cumins claimed that Crowder's address was 407 Melton Avenue, rather than 401. Then, on November 28, 2017, the trial court held a hearing on the matter, during which the State moved to dismiss Cumins on the ground that, in light of her assertions that the currency belonged to her father, she lacked standing. Counsel for Crowder appeared at the hearing, claimed that Crowder had never been served, and moved the trial court for a continuance so that a full evidentiary hearing could be scheduled. Without ruling on the standing issue, the court granted Crowder's motion.

         On December 6, 2017, the State filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that, despite being served by publication, Crowder had never filed an answer to the forfeiture complaint. A few weeks later, Cumins moved to dismiss without prejudice her claim to the currency, which the trial court granted. Then, on December 29, 2017, Crowder filed an answer, which was unverified and failed, inter alia, to state his current address. In response, the State filed a motion for a more definite statement. But Crowder responded by filing a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the State failed to effect service of process.

         On January 24, 2018, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the matter, during which the two police officers who interrogated Cumins at the airport testified. Crowder also testified, claiming that the $46, 820 was his money. Specifically, Crowder testified that he received a Social Security disability payment of $9, 000 sometime in 2010, and $36, 000 in settlement money for unspecified employment, which had "shut down." Crowder further testified that he had been keeping the money in a trailer near his home for some time, having previously accessed it from a bank, whose name he could not recall.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court took the matter under advisement. But on March 27, 2018, the court, without explicitly ruling on either the State's motion for judgment on the pleadings or Crowder's motion to dismiss, issued an order finding that the State failed to provide evidence that the $46, 820 in U.S. currency was being used for an illegal purpose and, thus, awarding the money to Crowder. The State filed a notice of appeal on April 10, 2018, but on April 13, 2018, Crowder filed a motion to release the currency. Then, on April 23, 2018, Crowder filed a notice of cross appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the State's complaint for insufficient service of process. The State filed a response to Crowder's motion to release the currency, citing its pending appeal, but the trial court, nonetheless, granted Crowder's motion. Subsequently, the State filed a notice of appeal of that decision, as well as an emergency motion with this Court to stay the release of the funds, which we granted. These consolidated appeals follow.

         Case No. A18A2113

         1. In Case No. A18A2113, the State contends that the trial court erred in effectively denying its motion for judgment on the pleadings or to dismiss Crowder's answer for failure to comply with the statutory pleading requirements for an in rem forfeiture answer. We agree.

         We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss a claimant's answer in an in rem forfeiture case for an abuse of discretion.[1] But we conduct a de novo review of the trial court's "application of the law to undisputed facts, owe no deference whatsoever to the trial court's conclusions of law, and are free to apply anew the legal principles to the facts."[2] With these guiding principles in mind, we will now address the State's contention.

         It is, of course, well established that the General Assembly may "impose pleading requirements in special statutory proceedings in addition to those found in our Civil Practice Act and in such cases, the sufficiency of a pleading must be judged in light of the specific statutory requirements."[3] Civil forfeiture proceedings are one such area of our law, and "[i]n a civil in rem forfeiture action, a claimant's answer must be in strict compliance with the special pleading requirements of OCGA § 9-16- 12 (c) (1)."[4] Importantly, the failure to timely file an ...


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