Of the 100+ domain names seized by ICE since it began Operation in Our Sites last summer, only one has raised a challenge. Rojadirecta, which allegedly catalogs hundreds of links, primarily to live sporting events streaming online, has enlisted no less than six lawyers in its effort to prevent its domain names from being forfeited by the US government.
On Friday, Rojadirecta’s petition for release of seized property was denied by the court. On the same day, it filed its motion to dismiss in the Government’s forfeiture proceeding against its domain name. The Government’s response is due by August 26th, and Rojadirecta’s reply to the response is due September 2nd.
Was the court correct in refusing to release the domain name to Rojadirecta? Will Rojadirecta succeed in getting the Government’s forfeiture complaint dismissed?
The short answer to these questions are, in my opinion, yes and no. For the gory legal details, read on.
Petition to Release Seized Property
Civil forfeiture is based on the idea that property can be “guilty” — a strange idea, but not a new one. But other than the defendant being property rather than a person, a civil forfeiture proceeding largely mirrors any other civil lawsuit. It begins with a complaint filed in court, proceeds through motions practice and discovery, and (if it makes it this far) ends in trial and judgment.
In a previous post, I wrote how the petition to release seized property largely mirrors the procedure of a criminal defendant being released on bail pending trial. Viewed this way, it’s easy to see why Rojadirecta didn’t succeed with its petition. Essentially, Rojadirecta’s lawyers made two arguments: “our client should be released on bail because he’s innocent” and “our client should be released on bail because he was wrongfully arrested.”
Those are certainly valid arguments, just not in this context.
As I detailed in my previous post, a petition like this is only granted if a claimant is suffering a substantial hardship due to the seizure. Most deprivations of property will cause some level of hardship, obviously; Congress added this procedure to reach those situations where the seizure would be devastating — situations like “preventing the functioning of a business, preventing an individual from working, or leaving an individual homeless.”
Rojadirecta failed to argue any of these.
It did argue, in part, that its users were suffering a substantial hardship due to the seizure because their First Amendment rights had been infringed. The court rejected this argument, causing some to scratch their heads, since it sounds like the court is saying it doesn’t think a loss of First Amendment rights is a substantial hardship.
That’s not what the court is saying, however. Infringement of free speech certainly causes substantial, if not irreparable, hardship. But the definition of “substantial hardship” in this particular statute is far more limited than the general meaning of the phrase. In addition, Congress didn’t intend to include free speech violations under this statute because those rights are already protected.
Claimants can challenge the legality of a seizure during the forfeiture proceeding itself or through existing procedures — for example, a Bivens action or a motion to suppress. The 983(f) petition is an additional layer of procedural protection on top of existing procedures, designed for a specific purpose. Rojadirecta simply raised this issue in the wrong place.
Judging by the brevity of the order, the denial of Rojadirecta’s petition was, as I had predicted, an easy call for the court to make.
Rojadirecta’s Motion to Dismiss
A motion to dismiss will be granted if the complaint is insufficient on its face.
Civil forfeiture complaints are governed by the Supplemental Rules in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which state in part that the Government must “state sufficiently detailed facts to support a reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet its burden of proof at trial.” “However,” as one court explains, “the Government is not required to allege in the complaint all of the facts and evidence at its disposal.”
It is sufficient for the Government to simply plead enough facts for the claimant to understand the theory of forfeiture, to file a responsive pleading, and to undertake an adequate investigation. The issue is one of pleading, not proof at trial. And it is for this reason that “[n]o complaint may be dismissed on the ground that the Government did not have adequate evidence at the time the complaint was filed to establish the forfeitability of the property.”
What does the Government have to show to establish the forfeitability of property?
Federal civil forfeiture statutes, including those applying to criminal copyright infringement, are subject to CAFRA, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. Under CAFRA, the Government must show that the defendant property is subject to forfeiture by a preponderance of the evidence. When the defendant property is alleged to be an instrumentality of a crime, the Government must also show that there is a substantial connection between the property and the alleged crime.
If the Government can show both, the only way a claimant can win is by rebutting the showing of a substantial connection or raising an affirmative defense to the forfeiture — the claimant is an “innocent owner” of the property, for example. Under CAFRA, an innocent owner is one who “did not know of the conduct giving rise to forfeiture; or upon learning of the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture, did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property.”
18 USC § 2323(a)(1)(B) subjects the following to forfeiture: “Any property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part to commit or facilitate the commission of an offense referred to in subparagraph (A).” Subparagraph (A) refers to criminal copyright infringement offenses, including those set out in 17 USC § 506, which states:
(1) In general.— Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed—
(A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain;
(B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180–day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000; or
(C) by the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.
Facilitation “occurs when the property makes the prohibited conduct less difficult or more or less free from obstruction or hindrance.” As one court noted, “It is ‘[i]rrelevant whether the property’s role in the crime is integral, essential or indispensable.’ A single incident of facilitating criminal activity is sufficient to trigger forfeiture.”
Notice what is not required in civil forfeiture proceedings.
First, the Government does not have to prosecute or convict anyone of the underlying crime to seek forfeiture of property that facilitates that crime.
Second, the forfeiture proceeding is not directed at the site operators of Rojadirecta, but at the domain name itself. The culpability of the site’s owners is irrelevant. In fact, the civil forfeiture has been described as an “essential tool” when the government “can prove that the property was involved in a crime, but cannot prove who the wrongdoer was.”
With this in mind, let’s turn to Rojadirecta’s general argument supporting its motion to dismiss. It states, “the Complaint, which focuses entirely on Puerto 80’s actions, fails to allege facts that, if proven, would suffice to show that Puerto 80’s operation of the Rojadirecta site constitutes criminal copyright infringement.”
As we’ve just seen, the Government’s forfeiture complaint doesn’t have to allege such facts. In other words, Rojadirecta is barking up the wrong tree with its entire argument. The question of whether or not the operators of Rojadirecta are directly or indirectly liable for criminal copyright infringement — as well as the question of whether or not criminal copyright infringement even allows for indirect liability — is completely unrelated to the question of whether the domain name can be forfeited for facilitating the commission of a criminal copyright offense.
I doubt, then, that Rojadirecta can succeed with its motion to dismiss. Its argument doesn’t apply to the Government’s claim that its property was used to facilitate the commission of criminal copyright infringement.
Limits on Forfeiture
Some have wondered what limits the Government from seizing just about any web site’s domain name, considering the seemingly broad reach of civil forfeiture law. I’ve previously discussed some of the legal limitations preventing a seizure free-for-all; I want to briefly mention one more.
The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines places limits on civil forfeiture. The 2nd Circuit analyzes property forfeiture for excessiveness by considering the following:
(1) the harshness, or gross disproportionality, of the forfeiture in comparison to the gravity of the offense, giving due regard to
(a) the offense committed and its relation to other criminal activity,
(b) whether the claimant falls within the class of persons for whom the statute was designed,
(c) the punishments available, and
(d) the harm caused by the claimant’s conduct;
(2) the nexus between the property and the criminal offenses, including the deliberate nature of the use and the temporal and spatial extent of the use; and
(3) the culpability of each claimant.
It adds, “Determining the excessiveness of a civil in rem forfeiture is necessarily fact-intensive and the ‘quantum, in particular, of pecuniary fines neither can, nor ought to be, ascertained by any invariable law.’ Given the impossibility of establishing a formula for an excessive fine with surgical precision, this framework provides a useful template for the fact-finding process and the ultimate excessiveness inquiry.”
A more detailed look at how this inquiry works in practice is beyond the scope of this article.