Muir v. Bilderback

Muir v. Bilderback, 2015 MT 181 (June 30, 2015) (McGrath, C.J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court properly dismissed Marie Felton’s objection to civil forfeiture of a Hummer that she co-owned with her son.

Short Answer: No. The police were required to personally serve the summons and petition for forfeiture on Felton.

Reversed and remanded to vacate the forfeiture order with respect to Felton

Facts: Bobby Bilderback is Marie Felton’s son. See 2015 MT 180. Missoula police found Bilderback in Missoula after being contacted by law enforcement in Washington. They executed a search warrant for a Hummer owned by Bilderback and Felton, and found $36,000 in cash and a plastic bag with methamphetamine residue. The Missoula chief of police instituted forfeiture proceedings against the Hummer, the cash, and other items found in the search, alleging they were involved with unlawful drug transactions. The police interviewed Felton, who said she was a title owner of the Hummer and did not know her son or the vehicle was involved in drugs.

The police concluded Felton was a sham owner, and did not name her in the forfeiture or serve her with the petition. Bilderback argued that she was an innocent owner, however, and that her interest was not subject to forfeiture. Felton appeared in the forfeiture action, asserting her ownership and requesting that the Hummer be released to her.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Neither Bilderback nor Felton appeared at the forfeiture hearing. The court ordered forfeiture, after which Felton moved to intervene. The court denied her motion, determining she became a party when she appeared and requested the vehicle, and that she had been properly served, concluding she slept on her rights by not appearing at the forfeiture hearing. Felton appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: The statutory requirement of notice to an owner of property subject to forfeiture protects “the innocent person from the unwitting surrender of his property.” ¶ 14 (quoting Hendrickson). Neither actual notice of the hearing nor allowing the owner to intervene suffice for service of the initial summons and petition. ¶ 15 (citing Froehlich). Here, the vehicle title was prima facie evidence that Felton was an owner of the Hummer. The phone conversation between the police and Felton confirmed her status as a title owner. She therefore had to be served under § 44-12-201, MCA. “Nothing in the forfeiture statutes allows the seizing authority to unilaterally conclude that a prima facie owner of seized property is only a sham owner who is not entitled to service.” ¶ 16.