United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
H. BRUCE GUYTON, District Judge.
This case is before the Court on the Petition of Eugenia Alvarez to Adjudicate Validity of Interest in Property [Doc. 518], which was filed on October 29, 2014. District Judge Pamela L. Reeves referred [Doc. 520] this petition to the undersigned on November 3, 2014, for disposition or report and recommendation regarding disposition by the District Judge as may be appropriate. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). The parties came before the Court on January 9, 2015, for an evidentiary hearing on the petition. Assistant United States Attorney Anne-Marie Svolto appeared on behalf of the Government. Attorney Rachel Bonano represented the Petitioner Eugenia Alvarez, who was present and participated with the aid of an interpreter. The purpose of the evidentiary hearing was to determine whether the Petitioner has a third-party interest in a 2006 Nissan Frontier, which her ex-husband has forfeited to the Government.
For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the Petitioner has an ownership interest in the 2006 Nissan Frontier. The Court also finds that the Petitioner's interest in the Frontier is superior to that of the Government. Accordingly, the Court RECOMMENDS that the Petition be granted and that the Frontier be returned to the Petitioner.
I. BACKGROUND AND POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES
Defendant Gonzalo Garcia Gines entered a change of plea before District Judge Pamela L. Reeves on August 21, 2014. On August 25, 2014, Judge Reeves entered an Agreed Preliminary Order of Forfeiture [Doc. 417], in which the Court found the Defendant had forfeited the following property to the United States: (1) A money judgment of $1, 500, 000 and (2) a 2006 Nissan Frontier, Vehicle Identification Number 1N6AD07U56C418625. The Court directed the United States Marshals Service to maintain custody of the property. The Order states that the United States hereby gives notice of its intent to dispose of the forfeited property and directs that
Any person other than the defendant, having or claiming a legal interest in any of the above-listed forfeited property must file a petition with the Court within sixty (60) days from the first day of publication of this Notice on the official United States Government internet website, which is www.forfeiture.gov.
[Doc. 417, p.3]
On October 29, 2014, Petitioner Alvarez, ex-wife of Defendant Gines, filed the Petition of Eugenia Alvarez to Adjudicate Validity of Interest in Property [Doc 518]. The Petition requests a hearing on the validity of Ms. Alvarez's interest in the 2006 Nissan Frontier. The Petition states that Ms. Alvarez was married to Defendant Gines in Mexico in September 2006. It states that Ms. Alvarez purchased the 2006 Nissan for $12, 500 from a private owner in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2008, and that the title is in her name. The Petition relates that Ms. Alvarez filed for divorce from Defendant Gines on December 31, 2013, shortly after he was arrested for the instant offense. It states that Ms. Alvarez was reasonably without cause to believe that the Defendant was using her vehicle for drug trafficking. Accordingly, Petitioner Alvarez asks that the Court return the Frontier to her.
The Government argues that its interest in the Frontier is superior to that of the Petitioner. Defendant Gines forfeited his interest in the Frontier to the Government in his plea agreement [Doc. 326], which was filed on July 17, 2014. The Government maintains that its interest relates back to the time that the drug conspiracy began in August 2012. Before that time, the title to the Frontier was in Defendant Gines' name and, thus, legally belonged to him. The Government contends that although Petitioner Alvarez obtained a title in her name in November 2014, her interest does not supersede that of the Government. Thus, it contends that the Petition must be denied.
II. SUMMARY OF TESTIMONY AND EVIDENCE
At the evidentiary hearing, the Petitioner Eugenia Alvarez Robles testified that she married Gonzalo Garcia Gines in Mexico in 2006. She stated that toward the end of 2008, she traveled with Gines to Chattanooga to purchase a 2006 Nissan Frontier. She testified that she purchased the Frontier with her money that she earned from working. The Petitioner testified that the title to the Frontier was put in Gines' name because she did not have the necessary documents to obtain a title in her name at the time. She said that Gines gave her the title to the Frontier because it was her car. According to the Petitioner, Gines "signed the title over" to her "right after we bought it." She said she believed he signed the title over to her in 2009 or 2010.
The Petitioner stated that initially, she was the primary user of the Frontier. Later, Gines bought a black Cougar, and she drove that car and "passed" the Frontier to Gines for him to use. During this time period, she and Gines shared the Frontier. In 2012, Gines sold the Cougar, and the couple only had the Frontier.
The Petitioner testified that she knew nothing of Gines' involvement in the drug conspiracy until he was arrested at their home. She stated that she believed Gines was at work at a restaurant during the time he is alleged to have been involved in the drug conspiracy. She stated that she never saw drugs, drug paraphernalia, or anything in the Frontier that would cause her to suspect that Gines was using it for drug trafficking. The Petitioner stated that she filed for divorce shortly after Gines was arrested. She divorced Gines on November 13, 2014. She was awarded the Frontier in the divorce decree. Petitioner Alvarez produced a Tennessee Certificate of Title [Exh. 2] for the Frontier, which was issued November 5, 2014. The title contains no information on the previous owner and states that the vehicle was acquired on August 30, 2010.
On cross-examination, the Petitioner stated that she acquired the title for the Frontier from Gines after they purchased it. She said that at the time the Frontier was purchased, she did not have a bank account or bills in her name, which were necessary to put the title in her name. She stated that before she obtained the 2014 title in her name, the Frontier was in Gines' name. The Petitioner also said that Gines "signed the title ...