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Brown v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

July 22, 2019

RODERICK BROWN, Petitioner Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Respondent Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: April 26, 2019

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware C.A. Nos. S16M-11-001 & S16M-12-002

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED in part, REVERSED in part, and REMANDED.

          Roderick Brown, pro se.

          Kathryn J. Garrison, Esquire, Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware for Appellee State of Delaware.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; SEITZ and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          TRAYNOR, JUSTICE.

         When police arrested appellant Roderick Brown[1] for drug dealing and money laundering, they also seized several cars and tens of thousands of dollars. Brown filed petitions for the return of that property, but after an evidentiary hearing, the Superior Court denied the bulk of Brown's claims. Brown then filed this appeal. Because we conclude that the State failed to meet its burden for the seizure of two of Brown's cars, we reverse in part. We affirm the remainder of the Superior Court's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The seizures

         After an investigation, Delaware State Police arrested Brown on August 26, 2016, while he was sitting outside of 206 Houston Circle in Millsboro, Delaware in a 2003 Honda Accord. The police seized the Honda, which was registered to Brown, as well as a set of keys from Brown's person. The police also executed a search warrant for an apartment at 206 Houston Circle. In the apartment, police found cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and $1, 644 in cash. The police also found a computer with the name "Brown" on the login screen, a doctor's appointment card for Brown, photos of Brown, and unsigned mortgage papers bearing Brown's name.

         The police also searched two garages in the Houston Circle complex and seized a 2002 Mercedes-Benz, which is not at issue in this appeal, and a 1972 Cadillac, which was registered to Brown. The police searched the garage in which the Cadillac was stored because the owner of that garage told police that Brown paid her $50 per month to keep a car in the garage. The police found no drugs or other contraband in the Cadillac or in the garage. The police seized the Cadillac because they believed that Brown had purchased it with the proceeds of drug sales.

         The police also executed a search warrant for a property on Berry Road in Frankford and seized a 1968 Oldsmobile registered to Brown parked behind the property. As with the Cadillac, the police seized the Oldsmobile because they believed that it had been purchased with drug proceeds. The police found no drugs or other contraband in the Oldsmobile or at the Berry Road property.

         During their investigation, the police learned that Brown stored drugs and drug proceeds at a property on El Coleman Drive in Millsboro. The police searched the El Coleman property and found cocaine, heroin, drug packaging materials, digital scales, guns, ammunition, $3, 813 in cash, and two keys.[2]

         The keys from the El Coleman property were for two safe deposit boxes at PNC Bank branches in Millsboro and Selbyville, but only the contents of the Millsboro safe deposit box are at issue in this appeal. The police obtained and executed search warrants for the safe deposit boxes. In the Millsboro safe deposit box (owned by Brown and a woman named Shawanda Knox), the police found $73, 000 separated into $1, 000 stacks. Brown and Knox also had two bank accounts at PNC Bank. One account contained $2, 513 and the other account contained $2, 022.52. The police seized the cash in the safe deposit boxes and the funds in the bank accounts because they believed that the money constituted proceeds from the sale of drugs. Brown originally denied ownership of the money in the Millsboro safe deposit box and bank accounts. Police sent the cash to the Delaware National Guard for forensic testing.

         B. Legal proceedings

         In November and December 2016, Brown filed two petitions for the return of the seized property. In one petition, Brown sought the return of the Cadillac, the Oldsmobile, and the Honda. In the other petition, Brown sought the return of $47, 430 in cash from the Millsboro safe deposit box, $4, 175.62 from his PNC Bank accounts, and $1, 644 in cash from the Houston Circle apartment. Knox and the co-owner of the Selbyville safe deposit box also filed petitions for the return of property. Those proceedings were stayed pending resolution of the criminal matter.

         In July 2017, a Superior Court jury found Brown guilty of drug dealing and money laundering. We affirmed the Superior Court's judgment of conviction, concluding, among other things, that the "evidence, in its totality, provided a sufficient basis for the jury to conclude with the required certainty that a substantial amount of the cash found in the safe deposit boxes was the product of [Brown]'s sale of illegal drugs."[3]

         On April 18, 2018, a Superior Court Commissioner held a hearing on all four petitions (Brown's and the other petitioners') for the return of property. Brown appeared without counsel at the hearing, but neither of the other petitioners appeared. At the beginning of the hearing, the Commissioner ruled that the validity of the search warrants that Brown sought to challenge-i.e., those leading to the seizure of the Cadillac and the Oldsmobile-could not be relitigated because Brown was found guilty in the criminal proceedings.

         In a written order dated May 10, 2018, the Commissioner found that the State had established probable cause for the seizure of the Honda, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and $47, 430 in the Millsboro safe deposit box and that Brown had not rebutted the presumption of forfeitability by a preponderance of the evidence.[4] The Commissioner found that the State had not established probable cause for the seizure of the Millsboro bank accounts and that therefore the $4, 175.62 should be returned to Brown. The Commissioner recommended that the Superior Court enter an order deeming the Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Honda, and $47, 430 in the Millsboro safe deposit box forfeited to the State. Neither party objected to the Commissioner's order. In an order dated May 29, 2018, the Superior Court adopted the Commissioner's findings and conclusions.[5] This appeal followed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We will uphold the Superior Court's decision that Brown's property was subject to forfeiture unless we find that the decision was clearly erroneous.[6] The State has the initial burden of establishing probable cause that the cars and money were subject to forfeiture under 16 Del. C. § 4784.[7] A car is subject to forfeiture if it was used to transport illegal drugs.[8] We also have held that motor vehicles purchased with the proceeds of illegal drug sales are subject to forfeiture under 16 Del. C. § 4784(a)(7).[9] Once the State establishes probable cause, the petitioner must show by a preponderance of the evidence that he has a "lawful possessory interest in the seized property" and that "[t]he property was unlawfully seized or not subject to forfeiture . . . ."[10] "A defendant convicted in any criminal proceeding is precluded from later denying the essential allegations of the criminal offense of which the defendant was convicted in any proceeding brought pursuant to this Rule, regardless of the pendency of an appeal from that conviction."[11]

         III. ANALYSIS

         Brown's arguments on appeal may be summarized as follows: (1) the Superior Court erred by barring any challenges to the legality of the search warrants that led to the seizures on collateral-estoppel grounds; (2) the State failed to show that the Cadillac and Oldsmobile were purchased with drug proceeds and that the Honda was used to transport drugs; and (3) the State failed to show that the $47, 430 cash in the Millsboro safe deposit box constituted drug proceeds.

         As an initial matter, we reject the State's argument that Brown waived consideration of his claims because he failed to file objections to the Commissioner's order. First, the applicable rule regarding dismissal is discretionary rather than mandatory.[12] Next, unlike Maniscalco v. State where the appellant ignored this Court's express directions to file objections to a Commissioner's report and recommendations before filing an appeal in ...


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