In 2001, Leroy Miller took Ricky Fines onto his northern Indiana farm as a boarder. Due to Miller and Fines’s mutual interest in guns, the pair began purchasing, refurbishing, and selling firearms as business associates. After three years of uneventful gun refurbishment, federal agents executed a search warrant at the farm in April 2004. The agents discovered and seized three weapons in Miller’s home and thirty-one located in a nearby shed, all purportedly belonging to Miller. Absent any aggravating circumstances, Miller’s constructive possession of these thirty-four firearms would have been completely legal and unsuspicious. Unfortunately for Miller, Fines was a convicted felon, and Miller knew it.
Under federal law, it is a felony offense for convicted felons to possess firearms, and for others—such as Miller—to knowingly aid and abet felons in firearm possession. Both Fines and Miller were convicted of federal felonies, and Miller’s new status as a felon prospectively subjected him to the same firearm possession ban that precipitated his predicament. Although the law prohibits only the possession of firearms and not their ownership, the government had the statutory right to completely extinguish Miller’s firearm-ownership rights by instituting forfeiture proceedings within 120 days of the seizure. However, the government failed to timely commence such proceedings against Miller, thereby nullifying the forfeiture authority granted by Congress.
When congressionally granted forfeiture authority is not exercised, the default rule is that “seized property, other than contraband, should be returned to its rightful owner.” Because returning the seized firearms would violate the federal possession ban, the government refused to relinquish Miller’s guns upon his request. Thus, the government’s failure to properly pursue forfeiture proceedings against Miller consigned his thirty-four firearms to judicial limbo: Miller’s firearm property rights had not been extinguished by forfeiture proceedings, but the firearms could not be returned to Miller due to his “firearm disability.”
This Comment addresses the contradiction in federal law that produces this seemingly irreconcilable predicament. How can courts resolve the statutory inconsistencies that generate a “firearm-disability dilemma”? More specifically, does the felon firearm possession ban effectively extinguish all firearm property rights, and if not, what are the contours of any residual property rights?