State v. Sanders, 284 N.C. App. 170 (Jun. 21, 2022)

This Iredell County case began when officers with the Mooresville Police Department seized $16,761 from the defendant’s vehicle while defendant fled the scene (the officers apparently suspected the defendant of drug activity). A few days later, the defendant filed a motion in state district court seeking return of the money on the grounds that the seizure was unlawful. The next day, while the motion was pending, the United States Department of Homeland Security “adopted” the case, and the Mooresville Police Department transferred the money to federal authorities. The state district court nonetheless granted the defendant’s motion and ordered the funds returned to the defendant. When the police department responded that it couldn’t comply because it didn’t have the money anymore, the state district court found that it had in rem jurisdiction over the funds, reaffirmed its prior order, held the police department and the city in contempt, and ordered them to purge the contempt by paying $16,761 to the defendant.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the matter under its certiorari jurisdiction. It noted that North Carolina generally employs criminal forfeiture, not civil forfeiture. And criminal forfeiture relies upon in personam jurisdiction, not the in rem jurisdiction associated with civil forfeiture. Therefore, the state district court never had in rem jurisdiction over the money, and its legal reasoning was tainted by this fundamental error. Further, under State v. Hill, 153 N.C. App. 716 (2002), “[o]nce a federal agency has adopted a local seizure, a party may not attempt to thwart the forfeiture by collateral attack in our courts, for at that point exclusive original jurisdiction is vested in the federal court.” The Court of Appeals questioned Hill’s conclusion that adoption by a federal law enforcement agency deprives the state courts of jurisdiction – instead, the court seemed to think that state jurisdiction should be lost only when a federal court acts to exercise jurisdiction – but it felt bound by Hill and accordingly vacated the trial court’s orders. The court noted that defendant’s sole remedy was to seek return of the funds in federal court.