Angulo-Murrieta v. City of Yuma – 3/30/2021

April 7, 2021

Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, holds that property used to facilitate misdemeanor theft is subject to civil forfeiture.

Yuma police arrested a man after he broke into someone’s backyard, stole property worth $500, and left the scene in his car.  The man was charged with misdemeanor theft, misdemeanor criminal damage, and third-degree felony burglary.  Yuma police and the Yuma County Attorney then moved to seize the man’s car for forfeiture, which the superior court granted.

After pleading no contest to solicitation to commit third degree burglary with intent to “commit theft of scrap wire,” the man filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the City of Yuma, arguing that the police and county attorney had violated his constitutional rights by unlawfully seizing his car.  Yuma moved to dismiss, arguing the seizure was authorized because the man’s conduct constituted racketeering under Arizona law.  The superior court agreed and granted the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Court viewed the matter as resolved by the plain text of Arizona’s racketeering statute, A.R.S. § 13-2301(D)(4).  That statute defines racketeering as “any act, including any preparatory or completed offense, that is chargeable . . . and that would be punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under the laws of the state . . . regardless of whether the act is charged or indicted, and the act involves” one of several enumerated offenses.  The Court determined that this definition addressed two distinct acts: (1) an act punishable by more than one year in prison; and then (2) one of the enumerated offenses.

Using that approach, the Court determined the seizure was authorized by law and affirmed the decision of the superior court.  Because Yuma police had moved to seize the man’s car based on: (1) probable cause that he had committed felony burglary (which is punishable by more than a year in prison but is not one of the enumerated offenses); and (2) probable cause the man had committed misdemeanor theft (which is one of the enumerated offenses under § 13-2301(D)(4) but is not punishable by more that a year in prison), both prongs of the racketeering statute were satisfied.  In reaching that conclusion, the Court rejected the man’s argument that the “involved act” must itself be punishable by more than one year in prison.  That, the Court reasoned, collapsed the two prongs of the statute, which contemplated a predicate act, punishable by more than a year in prison, that involved one of the enumerated offenses.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals noted that previous cases, such as Hannosh v. Segal, 235 Ariz. 108 (App. 2014), had overlooked some of the key language and grammatical structure in § 13-2301(D)(4).  However, the Court thought that any language in those cases contradicting its conclusion was dicta and declined to follow them.

Judge Gass authored the opinion for the Court, joined by Judges Brown and Weinzweig.