Remember Megaupload.com? It 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 owner, the colorful Kim Dotcom, and the website’s 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.
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. Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit arguing 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. Unlike an escaped criminal appellant who is scorning the court’s jurisdiction, in civil forfeiture, it’s the government that has dragged Dotcom and the others into court. Moreover, given the amount of abuse in civil-asset forfeiture, the government shouldn’t be allowed both to profit from the forfeiture and suppress defenses by calling residents of other countries “fugitives.” Finally, the reasons for fugitive disentitlement in criminal appeals simply can’t be transferred to civil-asset forfeiture. When an individual is “on the run” from criminal prosecution, courts can’t enforce judgements against them, but a valid forfeiture order would be fully enforceable against Dotcom if the court has jurisdiction over the property. Fugitive disentitlement is also used to deter felons from escaping justice, but there’s no similar concern here, where the property can’t run away and the claimants are merely residing in their home countries. The Fourth Circuit should not only allow the Megaupload defendants to challenge the seizure, it should also consider striking down as unconstitutional all uses of fugitive disentitlement in civil-forfeiture cases.