The Langbord family filed a petition with the United States
Supreme Court on Nov. 4, asking the nation’s highest court to
overturn a District and Appellate court who each held that the
family’s 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles were stolen government property.
The filing repeatedly warns that the issues at hand are bigger than
the 10 coins that were allegedly found by Joan Langbord in her
family’s safe deposit box in 2003 and directs the Supreme Court to two
First, the petition asks whether the government can avoid the rules
set forth in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA)
when it seizes property from private citizens and intends to keep it
by asserting that it was stolen government property and declaring that
it has no intention of seeking forfeiture. The second question is
whether the government can avoid CAFRA’s protections by waiting for
years and then filing a declaratory judgment claim that seeks the same relief.
Connect with Coin World:
Sign up for our free eNewsletter
Follow us on Twitter
In asking these two questions, the filing states that the court
would give clear guidance to the government, property owners and lower
courts in determining when CAFRA’s timelines and protections are
triggered. Assessing a broader interest beyond a specific pattern is
crucial in making a persuasive request to the Supreme Court, who only
hears a small fraction of the cases presented to it.
Parties who disagree with a lower court’s decision are allowed to
petition the Supreme Court to review a case. The petition for a writ
of certiorari was submitted on behalf of Joan Langbord and her sons,
Roy and David, by the family’s longtime attorneys Barry Berke and Eric Tirschwell.
The family and its attorneys hope that the Supreme Court accepts the
case, “To make clear that in contested situations: (1) the government
may not confiscate and retain property based on nothing more than its
unilateral claim that it is the rightful owner, and (2) if it does so,
it must suffer the penalty that Congress thought necessary and
appropriate to deter government overreaching — i.e., loss of its
ability to seek forfeiture of that property.”
The petition warns that absent the Supreme Court review, “the
government will now be free — in every case involving allegedly stolen
government property — to seize and keep that property without
following CAFRA’s dictates.”
CAFRA and coins
At the core of the petition is CAFRA, which Congress passed in 2000
to provide added protections to individuals by shifting the burden of
proof to the government to prove when property can be subject to forfeiture.
CAFRA established procedures, deadlines and penalties to ensure that
disputes over seized property were fairly and promptly resolved
through legal channels. The filing warns that as it was applied in the
Langbord case, “the purposes and principles of this groundbreaking law
are thus turned upside down, granting the government virtually
unfettered powers to delay, harass and burden the rare citizens who
attempt to fight back against government overreaching.”
Joan Langbord allegedly found the disputed coins in 2003 when
looking through property that had belonged to her father, Israel
Through Berke, she voluntarily turned the coins over to the U.S.
Mint for authentication. The petition frames this action, writing that
in performing this act, “the Langbords trusted that they would be
treated fairly. Unfortunately, the government instead violated their
constitutional rights and confiscated the Coins without affording the
Langbords any process whatsoever.”
A Sept. 21, 2004, letter from the Langbords’ attorney to the Mint
cited in the petition sought to confirm that the coins were being
submitted for authenticity while the family reserved all rights and
remedies with respect to the coins. While the government had explored
forfeiture, ultimately on May 19, 2005, the family was informed that
the coins would be returned to the U.S. Mint and would not be the
subject of forfeiture proceedings, and this was confirmed later that summer.
The Langbords filed a civil action against the government in
December 2006 to recover the coins and in July 2009 a District Court
directed the government to either return the coins or initiate a
judicial forfeiture proceeding.
The government’s forfeiture claim was the subject of a jury trial in
a Philadelphia District Court that started on July 7, 2011. On July 20
the jury ruled in favor of the government, which was later overturned
this August at the Appeals level by a three-judge panel. The full
panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reached a different result
and affirmed the District Court’s judgment, finding “a seizure alone
does not initiate a forfeiture proceeding because it does not
implicate a transfer of legal title.”
The most recent decision, made Aug. 1, found that the government
“had merely repossessed its own property” and “asserted its ownership
rights to the coins.”
A tricky situation
The 1933 double eagles are problematic in that while 445,500 were
struck between March and May 1933, they were not intended to be
released. Some may have been released in exchange for gold deposits at
the Philadelphia Mint Cashier’s Window during what has been
characterized as a “window of opportunity” while others possibly left
through more clandestine channels. The mintage was supposed to have
been melted, yet examples remained in the channels of numismatic commerce.
The U.S. Mint and Secret Service actively sought the return of these
coins from the 1940s into the 1950s, with many of the confiscated
coins being linked to Switt, a Philadelphia jewelry and scrap gold
dealer with a rather mixed reputation.
The government has a long history in seeking to reclaim these coins.
In 1947 a court held that an example of a 1933 double eagle was stolen
government property, and in the mid-1990s when another example turned
up, the government pursued it as well. In that case the government
settled, connecting the found example with a coin formerly owned by
Egypt’s King Farouk. (In 1944, the U.S. government had
granted the Egyptian government an export license for the coin, but a
short time later reached the conclusion that license should not have
The Farouk example sold for $7,590,020 at a 2002 Sotheby’s/Stack’s
auction and it remains the only example of the 1933 double eagle that
is available for private ownership.
Two more are in the collection of the National Numismatic Collection
at the Smithsonian Institution.
Beyond the coins, the resolution of these questions on what triggers
CAFRA’s protections would impact a wide variety of cases involving
allegations of theft of government property.
In short, the filing states, “There is no dispute the government
seized the Coins from the Langbords; indeed, the government did so
unconstitutionally, as the District Court found (in a ruling the
government has not yet appealed). Nor is there any dispute that, once
it determined the coins were authentic, the government proclaimed
itself their owner and made it clear it intended to keep them. The
question is whether — notwithstanding these undisputed facts of a
seizure followed by a clear declaration of ownership and intent to
keep the property — the government’s statement in its August 9, 2005
letter that it ‘has no intention of seeking forfeiture’ is enough to
render the protections of CAFRA inapplicable.”
The Supreme Court receives as many as 10,000 requests to hear cases
per year and only accepts 80 to 100 cases in a typical year. While the
chances are small, the Langbord family is hoping that the broader
implications presented will persuade the highest court to hear its case.