DEGEN v. UNITED STATES

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
95-173
Petitioner 
Degen
Respondent 
United States
Advocates
(Argued the cause for the respondent)
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
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Facts of the Case 

Brian Degen was indicted in 1989 for distributing marijuana, laundering money, and related crimes. On the same day the district court unsealed the indictment, it also unsealed a civil forfeiture complaint for properties allegedly worth $5.5 million and purchased with proceeds of Degen's drug sales or used to facilitate the sales. Degen is a citizen of both the U.S. and Switzerland, and in 1988 he and his family moved to Switzerland. He has not returned to the U.S. to face criminal charges and by treaty the Swiss are not obliged to extradite their nationals to the U.S. While residing in Switzerland, Degen filed an answer in the civil case, claiming that the forfeiture was barred by the statute of limitations and was an unlawful retroactive application of forfeiture laws. The district court did not consider his arguments. Instead, it entered summary judgment against him, holding that he was not entitled to be heard in the civil action because he remained outside the country, unamenable to criminal prosecution. On appeal, the government argued that the district court's inherent powers authorized it to strike Degen's claims under the "fugitive disentitlement doctrine."

Question 

Should the fugitive disentitlement doctrine be extended to allow a court in a civil forfeiture suit to enter judgment against a claimant, without any opportunity to be heard, because the claimant is a fugitive from, or otherwise is resisting, a related criminal prosecution?

Conclusion 
Decision: 9 votes for Degen, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision:

No. Principles of deference to the other branches of government require a court to invoke its inherent power only as a reasonable response to the problems and needs that provoke it. No sufficient reason justifies disentitlement here. Since the court's jurisdiction over the property is secure despite Degen's absence, there is no risk of delay or frustration in determining the merits of the government's forfeiture claims or in enforcing the resulting judgment. Also, the court has alternatives, other than disentitlement, to keep Degen from using liberal civil discovery rules to gain an improper advantage in the criminal prosecution, where discovery is more limited. Finally, disentitlement is an excessive response to the court's interests in redressing the indignity visited upon it by Degen's absence from the criminal proceeding, and in deterring flight from criminal prosecution in general; it is a response that erodes rather than enhances the dignity of the court.

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DEGEN v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 23 October 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1995/1995_95_173>.
DEGEN v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1995/1995_95_173 (last visited October 23, 2014).
"DEGEN v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1995/1995_95_173.