AS COVID-19 PANDEMIC CONTINUES
Difficulties in processing time-sensitive mail piling up
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, federal agencies are finding it increasingly difficult—and may soon be impossible—to carry out their responsibilities for processing thousands of pieces of time-sensitive mail. Federal agencies also find it hard providing timely and direct written notices to thousands of potential claimants and making the necessary referrals to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country.
This was learned soon after U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona granted Monday the U.S. government’s request for a blanket two-month extension on statutory deadlines for forfeiture activities.
The agencies that are facing difficulties are those with administrative forfeiture authority such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, and the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. government explained the federal agencies’ situation in its request for the U.S. District Court for the NMI to issue an order granting a 60-day blanket extension of the statutory deadlines by which the U.S. government is required to do two things: to begin administrative forfeiture proceedings against seized property, and to begin civil judicial forfeiture actions following submission of administrative claims in such proceedings.
In granting the U.S. government’s request, Manglona ordered that for all federal seizures of property that occurred or will occur in the NMI between Feb. 3, 2020, and April 30, 2020, the deadline for the seizing agency to commence administrative forfeiture proceedings against such property shall be extended for 60 days.
For all seizures of property by state or local law enforcement agencies in the NMI that occurred, or will occur, between Jan. 3, 2020, and April 30, 2020, the deadline for the agency to begin administrative forfeiture proceedings shall be extended for 60 days.
Manglona said the 90-day deadline for the filing of a civil forfeiture complaint (or inclusion of an asset in a criminal indictment) following an agency’s receipt of an administrative claim between Feb. 3, 2020, and April 30, 2020, is extended to 150 days instead of the statutory 90 days.
To the extent that any agency executed a 30-day extension of any administrative notice deadline on or before March 31, 2020, the deadline for the sending of the required notice is extended for 60 days from the current deadline.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr implemented last March 15 a “maximum telework” policy to allow federal employees to engage in social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That policy covers all Department of Justice law enforcement components. The departments of Homeland Security and Treasury issued similar orders. As a result, virtually all asset forfeiture personnel working in the headquarters facilities of the agencies in and around Washington, D.C. are teleworking, as are the overwhelming majority of the attorneys and staff at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Districts of Guam and NMI.
Th affected agencies initiate and process tens of thousands of administrative forfeitures every year, Manglona said, and those efforts generate massive amounts of paperwork, and require regular, close physical interaction among office personnel in each agency’s headquarters office to prepare notice letters, correction letters, denial letters, the mailing envelopes for all of those letters, and the preparation of notice by publication for each targeted asset on the government’s dedicated forfeiture website.
In addition, she said, agency employees and contractors physically handle large volumes of mail from the public daily, including handwritten letters, claims, petitions for remission or mitigation, and requests for reconsideration. Although the seizing agencies are capable of processing claims and petitions submitted electronically, the overwhelming majority of all submissions (approximately 85%) still go through the mail.
The submission of timely administrative claims requires the agencies to refer those matters to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country, and trigger separate deadlines relating to the filing of judicial forfeiture actions in the district courts.
Manglona found that the working conditions described in the U.S. government’s application are inconsistent with the social distancing guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health and public safety officials, the U.S. government owns guidelines for workplace safety, and the explicit requirements of mandatory declarations and executive orders of the NMI government.
Manglona said the agencies have certified to the court that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, their compliance with the 60 and 90-day statutory deadlines for starting administrative forfeiture with respect to federal and adoptive seizures, respectively, is likely to endanger the life or physical safety of government employees and contractors responsible for carrying out the duties of the agency administrative forfeiture programs, justifying the extension of these deadlines.
The judge said the U.S. government has demonstrated that the ongoing national emergency triggered by the pandemic, and the resulting need for social distancing and heightened controls on physical contact with objects that may present a risk of contamination, constitute good cause for a finding that requiring the noticing of seizures and referral of claims may endanger the life or health of the government asset forfeiture attorneys and staff responsible for reviewing cases, issuing notices, and processing submitted claims and petitions.