US Coins

Langbords petition Supreme Court over double eagles

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 key questions. 

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.

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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 “Izzy” Switt. 

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 been granted.)

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. 

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