State v. Frye (4/6/2021)

April 28, 2021

Arizona Court of Appeal Division One holds that a claimant may seek relief from a civil forfeiture judgment by way of Rule of Civil Procedure 60.

The State initiated proceedings to forfeit cash seized from a man.  The man filed a verified claim asserting his interest in the cash.  Per statute, the State then filed and served its verified complaint seeking forfeiture.  The man timely filed an answer but did not sign the answer personally under penalty of perjury as required.  Because of this, the State applied for an order of forfeiture, arguing that no proper answer was filed.  The superior court agreed and entered judgment forfeiting the money.

The man moved for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(1), (6) arguing that his failure to verify his answer was due to excusable error by his attorney’s support staff.  The superior court, however, denied relief, concluding that Rule 60 does not apply to default civil forfeiture judgments.

The Court of Appeals noted that although the forfeiture statutes provide an overall substantive framework, as well as some discrete procedural requirements, the statutes expressly rely on the procedures set forth in the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedures to govern civil forfeiture proceedings unless a different procedure is provided by law.  The court concluded that the forfeiture statutes are conspicuously silent on post-judgment relief and therefore Rule 60 applies.  Consequently, a claimant may seek relief from a civil forfeiture judgment by way of Rule 60.  The Court further noted that the failure to verify an answer and affix that verification could plausibly result from excusable neglect and that the man’s explanation that he earned the cash performing home improvement and property management services met the minimal burden for a meritorious defense.  The Court of Appeals vacated the superior court’s denial of Rule 60 relief and remanded for further proceedings.

Judge Cattani authored the unanimous opinion of the Court; Judges Howe and Bailey joined.