Evidentiary hearing on alleged missing suitcase, items

The U.S. District Court for the NMI will hold an evidentiary hearing at the request of a man convicted over a large methamphetamine shipment, who is seeking the return of his suitcase and personal items that were allegedly seized by a federal agent from his hotel room on Saipan.

In the same order Monday, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona ruled in favor of the U.S. government over the $1,130 that was seized from Xi Huang during the same search in his hotel room in 2015.

In his motion to return property, Huang wants the U.S. government to return to him $1,130, a suitcase with personal clothing, and wallet that were taken from his hotel room at the time he was arrested on Dec. 4, 2015.

Subsequently, the U.S. government filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that it never seized the suitcase, wallet or clothing, and that the $1,130 was forfeited.

Huang said federal agents took his $1,130, 600 yuan, a Gucci travel bag, two cell phones, cell phone charger, shoes, khaki pants and shirts, a Gucci wallet, and hair trimmer.

One cell phone has already been returned to Huang.

The U.S. government then sought summary judgment on the grounds that the $1,130 was forfeited and that the other items were never seized at the time of Huang’s arrest.

Huang claims that the Drug Enforcement Administration seized his suitcase and the personal effects inside it.

Huang also submitted a declaration that, while he was in custody in the hotel room, the agents took control of his luggage and personal property.

He stated that while he was in the Saipan jail, his attorney informed him that the DEA still had his personal items.

Huang said the $1,130 cash was not proceeds from a narcotics offense but was earned through legitimate work.

In response, the U.S. government submitted a declaration of DEA Task Force officer Ray Renguul, who stated that he was present during the search of Huang’s room and that his “suitcase, wallet, and clothing were never seized by law enforcement.”

In his declaration, DEA special agent Kirks F. Johns stated that he was present during the search and “except for a blue cellular flip-phone, four cell phone chargers, and $1,130, none of those items were, in fact, ever seized.”

In her order, Manglona said in the face of competing declarations from Huang and the U.S. government as to whether the personal property was seized at the time of Huang’s arrest, the court finds that there is a genuine dispute about a material fact.

“Accordingly, the motion for summary judgment as to this property is denied without prejudice and the court will hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue,” Manglona said.

With respect to the $1,130 cash, Manglona said to challenge administrative forfeiture proceedings, a claimant must assert an interest by submitting a claim and giving a cost bond within 20 days of when the notice of seizure was published.

Failing to file a claim within that period means that “the property is abandoned as a matter of law and the forfeiture is uncontested,” Manglona said.

Thus, the judge said, the government is “obligated to forfeit administratively the property” and no subsequent request for judicial adjudication of the forfeiture may be entertained.

Manglona said sufficient notice was provided to Huang.

Thus, she said, because Huang did not file a claim before the $1,130 was forfeited, he is not entitled to challenge the basis of the forfeiture in these proceedings.

“Accordingly, Huang has failed to demonstrate that there is a dispute of material fact as to whether he is entitled to the property, and the government’s motion for summary judgment as to the $1,130 is granted,” Manglona said.

Huang is currently serving 15 years and eight months in federal prison over the shipment of methamphetamine or “ice” worth $850,000.

Huang pleaded guilty to an indictment charging him with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He was sentenced in August 2016.

A routine Customs inspection at the Port of Saipan of a 40-foot container from China resulted in the discovery of the 4.9 lbs. of “ice” hidden in three plastic bags in one of the nine 5-gallon paint containers on Dec. 2, 2015.

Joint federal and local enforcers investigated the shipment, resulting in the arrest of Huang and two co-defendants.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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