Of Millionaire “Fugitives” and the Rule of Law

Megaupload.com was once the 13th most popular website on the internet, with more than 82 million unique visitors and a billion total page views during its seven-year operation. The site allowed people to store files on the cloud for later use—and some users inevitably stored copyrighted TV shows, films, songs, and software. In 2012, the U.S. government charged the site’s owner, Kim Dotcom, and its operators with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. The defendants are currently resisting extradition to the United States (Dotcom lives in New Zealand), as is their right under extradition treaties.

In 2014, the seemingly frustrated government moved to seize the defendants’ considerable assets in a civil-forfeiture action, claiming that the assets are probably connected to the alleged criminal activity. The government had a major problem, however, as the assets that they were seeking to seize were not located in the United States, but in Hong Kong and New Zealand. Under traditional rules of in rem jurisdiction—a legal theory that allows courts to gain jurisdiction over property—the court must have “control” over the property to entertain the claims, which the district court did not have in this case.

The district court, however, ignored fundamental principles of statutory construction, and agreed with the government’s argument that a federal statute—conferring only venue to the district courts in cases where property was located outside of the United States—also expanded the court’s jurisdiction and fundamentally altered the traditional requirement that courts have control over the property to assert jurisdiction over it.

This misreading of the statute also created a serious constitutional issue under Article III. It is a fundamental constitutional rule that federal courts can’t issue mere “advisory” opinions. When a court lacks control over property located in a foreign country, it necessarily relies on another sovereign to enforce that order, making it advisory as to how the other sovereign should enforce the judgement.

To make matters worse, the court here also “disentitled” the defendants from presenting evidence that their property was not subject to seizure. Under civil-forfeiture laws, the government can take property without an underlying criminal conviction based only on the allegation of a crime. Those whose property has been seized can get it back by proving that their property is “innocent.” The government, however, is preventing the defendants from even making that argument. Using the “fugitive disentitlement” doctrine, the government is blocking the defendants from challenging the forfeiture.

Fugitive disentitlement has historically been applied only to criminals who escaped custody while appealing a conviction, the idea being that a court could decide to dismiss the appeal because any judgment would be unenforceable against an absent defendant. Here, the government has decided that, because the Megaupload defendants aren’t coming to the United States to defend their property, they are “fugitives” who have lost the ability to defend against that seizure—and the district court agreed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit then wrongly upheld the district court’s holding, so Cato, along with the Institute for Justice, have filed an amicus brief asking the court to hear the case en banc (all the judges on the court).

We argue that the district court’s reading of the federal statute was not in line with fundamental statutory construction principles and that it’s unconstitutional for the government to use fugitive disentitlement in civil forfeiture proceedings against non-fugitives. The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause requires an opportunity to be heard and an opportunity to defend against government-initiated actions against your property—even if you’re a dotcom millionaire living abroad.

The Fourth Circuit will decide whether to rehear United States v. Batato later this fall. If it declines to do so, the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to take the case – possibly before the end of the new term that just started today.