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United States v. Morris

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

March 19, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JASON WAYNE MORRIS

          ORDER

         Before the Court is Defendant Jason Wayne Morris' motions for return of property. (Doc. Nos. 60, 62.) Defendant's motions request certain property seized during the search of his residence, and subsequently suppressed during his prosecution, be returned to him. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motions are DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On May 26, 2017, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources ("DNR"), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ("ATF"), and the Warren County Sheriff's Office executed a search warrant at Defendant's residence. During the search, law enforcement located and seized numerous firearms, ammunition, controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, $22, 419.00 in cash, vehicles, electronics, documents, and hunting equipment. (DNR Incident Report, Doc. No. 62-1.) Defendant's correspondence with the DNR revealed all firearms, ammunitions, drugs, cash, and explosive devices were turned over to the ATF and the remaining evidence was stored in the Warren County Sheriff's evidence room. (Def.'s Mot. to Compel, Doc. No. 62-1, Ex. D.)

         Defendant was subsequently indicted and charged with five counts stemming from his possession of controlled substances and firearms. (Indictment, Doc. No. 1.) Defendant then filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the May 26th search. (Doc. No. 19.) The United States Magistrate Judge held a hearing on the motion and issued a Report and Recommendation (WR&R") concluding that the warrant used to execute the May 26th search was facially invalid. (R&R, Doc. No. 34, at 9-11.) The Magistrate Judge recommended Defendant's motion be granted and the evidence seized be suppressed. (Id. at 15.) On November 8, 2017, the Court adopted that recommendation and granted the motion to suppress. (Order of Nov. 8, 2017, Doc. No. 48.) Defendant later plead guilty to Count 2 of the Indictment, which stemmed from a separate, valid search of his residence. (Change of Plea, Doc. No. 50.)

         Nearly a year later, on October 10, 2018, Defendant, proceeding pro se, filed a motion to take judicial notice of his letter demanding the return of his property. (Doc. No. 60.) On November 28, Defendant filed a motion to compel the return of his property. (Doc. No. 62.) Defendant's motions requested return of *$22, 814.00 [sic] Dollars in cash and all Files/Documents and other xlegal property.'" (Def.'s Mot. to Compel, Doc. No. 62, at 4.) Although Defendant does not explain which documents he seeks, he did file copy of the DNR incident report generated after the search warrant. The report contains Defendant's annotations indicating which of the items seized he seeks to have returned; it includes the $22, 419.00 in cash, *1 file folder with numerous correspondence/mail/bills/receipts belonging the Jason Morris," andtt2 vehicle titles in Jason Morris' name."[1] (DNR Incident Report.) For purposes of this motion, the Court will assume these items are the property Defendant seeks to have returned.

         The Court reviewed Defendant's motions and issued an Order instructing the ATF, the DNR, and the Warren County Sheriff to respond and show whether they were in possession of Defendant's property. (Order of Jan. 8, 2019, Doc. No. 63, at 3-4.) On January 31, 2019, the ATF filed an affidavit and supporting documents describing its administrative forfeiture of the $22, 419.00 in cash, firearms, and ammunition seized from Defendant's residence. (See Doc. No. 63.) The notices filed by the DNR and the Warren County Sheriff's Office state that neither are currently in possession of any of Defendant's property. (See Doc. Nos. 65, 69.)

         The Warren County Sheriff's verified response shows what property was in its possession and the disposition of that property following Defendant's motion to suppress. In March 2018, the Sheriff turned over all of Defendant's electronics, his night vision scope, three compound bows, a fishing rod, and fifteen vehicles to Ginger Morris, Defendant's mother.[2] (Doc. No. 69, Exs. 1-4.) These transfers are evidenced by four "Receipts of Property," each of which includes a distinct list of property seized during the May 26th search and signatures by Ginger Morris showing which property the Sheriff remitted to her. (Id.) Although there is no mention of vehicle titles, all fifteen of the seized vehicles were returned to Ginger Morris. Finally, none of the Receipts of Property list a file folder of documents, but the Warren County Sheriff stated, under oath, that he is no longer in possession of any of Defendant's property. (Doc. No. 69.)

         B. Administrative Forfeiture Proceedings

         On June 7, 2017, twelve days after the May 26th search, the ATF initiated administrative forfeiture proceedings for the firearms, ammunition, blasting caps, and cash seized from Defendant's residence. (Decl. of James D. Ingram (* Ingram Decl."), Doc. 64-1, ¶¶ 4-5.) The ATF sent the notice required by 19 U.S.C. § 1607(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 983(a) to Defendant's home address and his address at the McDuffie County Jail. (Notice of Seizure of Property and Initiation of Administrative Forfeiture Proceedings ("Notice of Seizure"), Doc. Nos. 67-5, 67-6; see also Ingram Decl. ¶¶ 7-8.) Each notice contained a list of all assets subject to forfeiture, the deadline and instructions for filing a claim, and a claimant form. (Notice of Seizure.) The notice sent to Defendant's home address was returned as undelivered, but the notice sent to Defendant's jail address by certified mail was confirmed delivered.[3] (Ingram Decl. ¶¶ 7-8.) The ATF also published notice for thirty consecutive days on the federal government's dedicated asset forfeiture website, in accordance with 19 U.S.C. § 1607. (Advisement Certification Report, Doc. No. 67-7; see also Ingram Decl. ¶ 10.) Neither Defendant nor any other interested party filed a claim to the property seized by the ATF. (Ingram Decl. ¶ 11.)

         On September 21, 2017, the ATF administratively forfeited the firearms, ammunition, blasting caps, and cash pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1607. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.) The forfeiture declaration stated the cash had been seized pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881 on the day the search warrant was executed. (Decl. of Administrative Forfeiture, Doc. No. 67-3.) It further stated notice of the seizure and intent to forfeit was sent to each party who appeared to have an interest in the property and was published for thirty consecutive days on the official government website. (Id.) Because no claims to the cash were timely filed, the ATF declared the $22, 419.00 forfeited to the United States Government. (Id.) Finally, the ATF maintains that it had probable cause to believe the cash "was traceable or intended to be used to facilitate illegal drug activity."[4] (Ingram Decl. SI 6 .)

         II. DISCUSSION

         Defendant requested return of the $22, 419.00 in cash seized, "Files/Documents," and other legal property. The ATF's response to the Court's January 8th Order only concerned the cash and firearms seized and neither the DNR or the Warren County Sheriff's Office are in possession of the other property. The Court will first address Defendant's motion with respect to the $22, 419.00 in cash.

         A. $22, ...


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