By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
On Wednesday, July 1, the United States Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia filed a petition with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the U.S. Federal Government, seeking a rehearing in the case of Langbord et al v. U.S. Department of Treasury et al (Case No. 12-4574). A three-judge panel had ruled in favor of the Langbord family on April 17, 2015–a ruling that itself reversed an earlier jury ruling and a district court decision, both of which had found in favor of the government.
In the July 1 filing, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert A. Zauzmer, Jacqueline Romero and Nancy Rue request that the Court of Appeals take up the matter in an en banc session. This means that the case would be heard by the entire bench of judges for the Third Circuit, as opposed to a select panel of them. Such sessions are generally reserved for complex and controversial cases and the court is under no obligation to accept the case.
Judge Marjorie Rendell, one of the judges that decided in favor of the Langbords on procedural grounds in April, wrote in her opinion on the case that the United States Government was “obligated to bring a judicial civil forfeiture proceeding or to return the property” and, having failed to do so, “must return the Double Eagles.”
The government’s attorneys claim that the April ruling “produces a miscarriage of justice in this particular case, and more broadly … also significantly misreads civil forfeiture statutes in a manner that does substantial harm to the ability of the United States to protect its own property and to pursue forfeiture under applicable law.”
The government also restates its position as to how the Langbords came into possession of the never-released gold coins, saying:
“This case concerns 10 gold pieces minted in 1933 as “Double Eagle” $20 coins, but never issued by the United States as coinage. Upon taking office in 1933 at a time of financial crisis, President Roosevelt ordered a halt to the issuance of gold coins and directed that the 445,500 1933-dated Double Eagles that had recently been minted in Philadelphia not be issued. In 1937, the coins were melted, with the exception of two that were sent to the Smithsonian Institution. The Double Eagle, long considered one of the most beautiful of American coins, was never minted again.
“However, some 1933 coins survived. They were stolen from the Mint by its cashier, George McCann, abetted by Israel Switt, a Philadelphia merchant and coin dealer, who over time sold some at a significant premium while hoarding the rest. As the decades passed, the United States never relented in its effort to recover this stolen government property, successfully retrieving several.
“In 2001, a unique deal was reached concerning one of the coins that Switt sold. The government had mistakenly issued an export license in 1944 allowing that coin to leave the United States, after it was acquired by the King of Egypt [King Farouk I]. For that reason, after this coin was recovered from an American collector in 1996 and litigation ensued, the government decided to settle the matter. The parties stipulated that the Double Eagle was property of the United States Mint; and the Mint agreed to monetize that one coin (accepting a payment of $20) and to sell it at auction, with the government and the collector splitting the proceeds. The coin sold at auction in 2002 for $7,590,020, almost twice the greatest sum ever paid at auction for any coin.
“Shortly after the 2002 sale of that one coin, Joan Langbord, the daughter of the late thief Israel Switt, announced that she discovered 10 more 1933 Double Eagles in her safe deposit box, and she wanted the same deal that the collector had just enjoyed. The Langbord family, purporting to reserve all rights, surrendered the coins to the Mint for authentication. The Mint retained the coins after authenticating them, given that they are and always have been government property.”
Neither the government nor the attorneys for the appellants argued these facts in April.
Instead, what the Langbords claimed was that the U.S. Mint did not follow proper procedure (as outlined in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, or CAFRA) when it seized the coins.
A 2011 jury found the Langbord claim lacking. So too, did the district court judge that heard the case in 2012. The three-judge panel, however, shifted the burden of proof from the Langbords and their claims of ownership to the government, punishing it for not satisfying CAFRA even though the government claimed it was under no obligation to do so.
In Wednesday’s petition, the government’s lawyers argue that this was an erroneous conclusion, saying that “[e]ven assuming that the majority’s interpretation of CAFRA is correct, … the vacatur of the declaratory judgment is unsupportable because that judgment rested on the government’s entirely separate claim as owner of the coins.”
“The very purpose of forfeiture,” the appeal states, “is to transfer title to the United States. 18 U.S.C. § 981(f). There was no reason to accomplish that here; the government asserted and ultimately proved that it always had title to the coins. When the government finds and recovers actual property stolen from it (as opposed to proceeds), it does not ‘forfeit’ it. It instead acts to recover it.”
When CAFRA (Public Law 106-185) was signed into law in 2000, it was intended to provide clear guidelines to the government for the seizure of property that it claims is involved in the commission of criminal activity.
It’s a highly controversial policy that has led to rampant allegations of corruption and fraud on the part of the government. Such was the case when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized $11,000 from a college student in Cincinnati. Or when Nevada police seized $50,000 in casino winnings from a Vietnamese man in 2014.
The government, however, claims that CAFRA is irrelevant in this instance.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to announce whether or not it will rehear the case. CoinWeek will continue to follow this story as it develops.
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