In 1972, NASA encased in Lucite some of the moon rocks brought back by Apollo 17. President Nixon distributed them to heads of state, including the president of Honduras. The Honduras moon rock disappeared, only to surface recently in a sting operation by federal agents.

Alan Rosen tried to sell the rock to the agents. Rosen, who has not been charged criminally, says he bought the rock in 1995 in Honduras after negotiating through intermediaries with a retired colonel, who had it knocking around his desk for 20 years after receiving it as a gift from a dictator.

The U.S. government seized the rock from Rosen in 1998, and wants a court order to get Rosen out of the picture and intends to send it back to Honduras. The government will have to prove that the rock was stolen, and that under Honduras law, Rosen has no legitimate claim to it as property.

Update: (March 25, 2003): U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled that ownership of the moon rock had never changed after it was given by the United States to Honduras --and therefore was not Mr. Rosen's property. The rock was therefore properly seized by the authorities and will probably be returned to Honduras.

Suing a Lucite Ball: How and Why

Under Anglo-Saxon law, a “deodand” --something that caused a person’s death, such as a sword-- was personified and declared tainted or evil, and forfeited to the king.

In rem” proceedings developed in Admiralty law. A court might not have jurisdiction over the persons who owned a ship, but the authorities had impounded the ship in the harbor. Instead of naming a person (i.e. Alan Rosen) a thing or “res” is named: (i.e. Lucite Ball).

Combine the two ideas and you have modern forfeiture statutes, under which property involved in a crime (any crime, not just murder) can be indicted, held guilty and condemned to be property of the sovereign. By applying the traditional legal fictions to forfeiture proceedings, the government sidesteps almost all the protections for accused criminals under the United States Constitution.

In this case, the Bill of Rights would provide all sorts of procedural protections for Mr. Rosen: he would be entitled to a lawyer, a jury trial, and if he were acquitted by the jury, he could not be tried again for the same crime. Thanks to the Rehnquist Court’s fanatical support for the War on Drugs, however, there are almost no constitutional protections against forfeiture.

Other Things the Government can Sue

Cars, guns, cash and land are frequently sued by state and local prosecutors. I have also seen cases involving Lear jets and horses. Civil forfeiture can involve three different types of property:

  • contraband
  • proceeds
  • instrumentalities

"Contraband" includes controlled substances, unlawfully possessed firearms, counterfeit money, stolen property. These things are not "property" because it is unlawful to own or possess them. Since no one claims contraband, e.g. illegal drugs, there aren’t a lot of cases called “United States v. A Kilo of Dope”. There are lots of cases involving smuggled items: cases of cigarettes or booze, hence, there might be a case called "United States v. 99 Bottles of Beer". There really is a case called "United States v. 2,116 Boxes of Boned Beef", 726 F.2d 1481 (10th Cir. 1984). In an obscenity case, "contraband" might be a book or movie, e.g. United States v. One Book Called 'Ulysses' or "United States v. One Film entitled 'I am Curious-Yellow'" (Thanks, BrooksMarlin). Finally, "contraband" can be stolen property, in which case someone very well might claim it, just like Mr. Rosen claims his lucite ball. "Proceeds" are proceeds of the crime, usually money received for drugs or stolen property, but sometimes also things bought with proceeds of a crime. That's when you get cases like State v. One Lear Jet. "Instrumentalities" are property used in committing a crime, usually vehicles and weapons. That's how we get cases like “United States v. One Ford Mustang”.

In some states, criminal and forfeiture cases are brought in the name of the sovereign, i.e. "the People". Hence, in numerous cases we have millions of people ganging up on a single used car.


Sources:

My encyclopedic knowledge of the law: supported by examples from Michie Law On Disk™.

AP story: http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/06/29/moon.rock.lawsuit.ap/index.html

Space Object Collecting: http://www.collectspace.com

Rosen's rock site: http://www.geocities.com/area51/crater/2029

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