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July 7, 1978


Suffolk. Civil actions commenced in the Superior Court on May 17, 1977, and August 15, 1977, respectively. The cases were heard by George, J., a District Court Judge sitting under statutory authority. The Supreme Judicial Court granted a request for direct appellate review.

Quirico, Braucher, Liacos, & Abrams, JJ.


Narcotic Drugs. Practice, Civil, Forfeiture proceeding. Due Process of Law, Forfeiture proceeding, Right to a hearing. Motor Vehicle, Forfeiture.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Liacos

In two actions by a district attorney seeking forfeiture of two automobiles pursuant to the provisions of G. L. c. 94C, § 47, the holder of a security interest in both vehicles could not complain of lack of notice of the seizure and forfeiture where it had actual notice of the proceedings and fully participated in them. [671-672]

The holder of a security interest in two automobiles was not entitled to notice and a hearing prior to seizure of the automobiles under the provisions of G. L. c. 94C, § 32. [672-673]

The forfeiture provisions of G. L. c. 94C, § 47, were not unconstitutional in failing to protect an innocent holder of a security interest in two automobiles forfeited under the statute. [673-675]

These two cases were initiated by a district attorney, pursuant to the provisions of G. L. c. 94C, § 47, seeking forfeiture of two automobiles, a 1977 Pontiac and a 1974 Buick. Both automobiles had been seized by the police following the arrest of their owners on charges of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. See G. L. c. 94C, § 32. *fn2 The owners received notice of the forfeiture proceedings, but neither owner appeared at trial.

The cases came on for trial on September 8, 1977, before a Judge of the Superior Court, Suffolk County, sitting without a jury. See G. L. c. 94C, § 47 (d). The Judge allowed a motion by the district attorney to consolidate the two cases, and allowed a motion by General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) to intervene. GMAC, which had a security interest in both vehicles, the nature of which is discussed more fully below (see note 5 (infra)), assumed the burden of defense in both cases. In each case, the Judge found that the automobile "was being used in the illegal transportation of a controlled substance" and ordered and adJudged that the automobile be confiscated by the Commonwealth. GMAC took appeals to the Appeals Court, and we allowed an application for direct appellate review. G. L. c. 211A, § 10 (A). We affirm the judgments of the Superior Court.

The following facts appear in a stipulation filed in the Superior Court by the district attorney and GMAC. On or about July 22, 1977, GMAC brought an action for declaratory judgment and equitable relief in the Superior Court, naming as defendant the district attorney for Suffolk County. GMAC sought a declaration that certain provisions of G. L. c. 94C were unconstitutional, and sought to gain possession of the two automobiles. One of the instant forfeiture proceedings had been initiated by the district attorney prior to GMAC's suit (action against the Pontiac was begun on May 17, 1977), and the other forfeiture proceeding was initiated subsequent to GMAC's suit (action against the Buick was begun on August 15, 1977). The district attorney and GMAC agreed that motions would be made seeking dismissal of GMAC's suit and seeking allowance of GMAC's intervention in both forfeiture proceedings "on behalf of" the defendant automobiles. At the consolidated forfeiture hearing on September 8, 1977, the Judge allowed the motion to dismiss the GMAC suit and, as already has been noted, allowed the motion to intervene.

1. In light of these facts, we find it difficult to comprehend the contention of GMAC on appeal that it "has been substantially deprived of its constitutional guarantee of procedural due process in that it received no notice of seizure and forfeiture, and hence had no opportunity to set forth any defense to the Commonwealth's action pursuant to G. L. c. 94c, § 47 (c) (3)." *fn3 We need not discuss whether GMAC, as the holder of security interests in the two automobiles, had a constitutional right to notice of the forfeiture proceedings. It is apparent from the facts that GMAC had actual notice of the proceedings, had opportunity to participate in them, and took full advantage of the opportunity. *fn4

GMAC appears also to suggest that it should have received notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the actual seizure, as distinguished from forfeiture, of the automobiles. GMAC cites two Supreme Court cases, Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 80-81 (1972), and Sniadach v. Family Fin. Corp., 395 U.S. 337 (1969), as well as one of our own cases, Haverhill Manor, Inc. v. Commissioner of Pub. Welfare, 368 Mass. 15, 24, cert. denied, 423 U.S. 929 (1975), for the proposition that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires the State to provide some kind of hearing before a significant property interest is taken. We need not discuss in detail the many considerations and qualifications that define the constitutional dimensions of these cases, all of which GMAC has seen fit to ignore. See, e.g., Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 676-680 (1974); Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. 600, 603-620 (1974). It suffices to note that "seizure for purposes of forfeiture is one of those '"extraordinary situations" that justify postponing notice and opportunity for hearing.' Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S., at 90; see Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 339 (1969); Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 378-379 (1971)." Calero-Toledo, supra at 677. See Haverhill Manor, Inc., supra at 24-25. All the considerations that were present in Calero-Toledo to support seizure without a prior hearing are present in the instant cases. Seizure serves the important governmental purpose of allowing the Commonwealth to "assert in rem jurisdiction over the property in order to conduct forfeiture proceedings, thereby fostering the public interest in preventing continued illicit use of the property and in enforcing criminal sanctions" (footnote omitted). Id. at 679. Lack of prior notice of the seizure protects against the removal, destruction, or concealment of the property. Id. Finally, seizure is initiated by government officials as a first step in the forfeiture proceeding detailed in c. 94C, § 47; seizure is not initiated by self-interested private parties, as was the case in Fuentes v. Shevin, supra.

Having concluded that notice and hearing are not required prior to a proper seizure for the purpose of forfeiture, we need not pursue a possible alternative ground for rejecting GMAC's procedural due process argument -- that GMAC did not possess a significant property interest in the automobiles at the time of seizure or thereafter. *fn5

2. GMAC does not contest the validity or propriety of the Judge's findings that the automobiles were being used in the illegal transportation of a controlled substance or that the automobiles were subject to forfeiture pursuant to G. L. c. 94C, § 47 (a) (3). Cf. Commonwealth v. One 1969 Mercedes-Benz Automobile, ante 663 (1978). GMAC does maintain, however, that forfeiture in these cases deprives it of contingent property rights without due compensation. GMAC also argues that § 47 (c) (3), the statutory "exception" to the forfeiture provision of § 47 (a) (3), see notes 2 and 3, (supra) , violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it "(1) adversely affects innocent parties, (2) only provides for owners' rights, and (3) fails to meet the Fourteenth Amendment constitutional guarantee which demands that the law shall not be unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious in its application." The gist of these arguments, as we understand them, is that the statute does not go far enough in that it only protects from forfeiture "innocent" owners -- those who can show that they did not know and should not have known that the conveyance was used in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances. See § 47 (c) (3), (d). GMAC argues that the statute is unconstitutional for the reason that it does not offer similar protection to innocent parties in ...

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