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Surrendered license subject to forfeiture for federal crimes

Surrendered professional licenses are subject to forfeiture under criminal conviction laws, the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Iowa, held January 3, rejecting both constitutional arguments and an attempt by a defendant to surrender his licenses to a state board prior to a forfeiture action following his criminal conviction.

(United States vs. West)

In 2019, nursing licensee Christopher West pled guilty to federal criminal charges after he used his nursing licenses to fraudulently acquire narcotic painkillers and replace them in their containers with saline solution. Included in the prosecutor’s indictment of West was a requirement that, if convicted, he would be required to forfeit any property used in the facilitation of his crimes, and expressly listed his nursing licenses as such property.

However, when West pled guilty, his plea agreement stipulated that he and the prosecution would instead litigate the question of whether he would have to forfeit those licenses.

In the litigation that followed, West made two primary arguments against the forfeiture of his license: that any attempt to seize his licenses was now moot because he had surrendered them to the state nursing board, that any attempt to seize his licenses would be in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines, and that federal seizure of professional licenses violated the separation of powers between the federal government and the states.

Although he also challenged whether the licenses were property of the sort that is subject to forfeiture, longstanding legal precedent made clear that they were.

Following his conviction, West had surrendered his licenses to the Iowa Board of Nursing, which barred him from applying for reinstatement for at least a year. Citing that surrender, West argued that any attempt by the federal government to seize his licenses was moot, as he had already given them up to the board and thus had no licenses to forfeit.

Judge C.J. Williams, presiding over the case, disagreed, noting what he said were the contradictions in West’s argument that his licenses no longer existed, but that he had standing to challenge prosecutors’ attempts to seize the licenses.

Although West argued that, because he could eventually apply for the re- instatement of his licenses, he did have an interest in them and, thus, standing to bring a case, Judge Williams wrote that, “If defendant has a future property interest, then the Court agrees he has standing to challenge the forfeiture. If that is true, then the matter is not moot . . . The defendant cannot have it both ways.”

“Either the licenses no longer exist and the defendant has no property interest in them, in which case he does not have standing to challenge forfeiture, or the licenses still exist in some form and defendant has a property interest in them, in which case forfeiture is not moot. Defendant cannot avoid forfeiture here by claiming the licenses no longer exist but that, simultaneously, he has a future interest in those same licenses.”

Additionally, the judge noted, forfeiture of the licenses would be retroactive to the time at which West committed his offenses, and would thus pre-date the surrender of his licenses. Thus, if forfeiture were to apply, West had surrendered licenses he no longer had a right to control, and any surrender would be invalid.

Judge Williams also rejected West’s Eighth Amendment claim. Under Eighth Circuit precedent controlling federal courts in Iowa, an excessive fine of the type prohibited by the Eighth Amendment would have to be “grossly disproportional” to the offense. That court has created a factor test to determine such gross disproportionality, and an analysis under those factors was not favorable to West.

West, the court noted, used his licenses to steal painkillers and keep them from patients who needed them for a period of several months. He committed his offenses while possessing several guns, a crime for a person illegally using controlled substances. And several patients suffered from his theft, as the diluted or completely-replaced painkillers they were given had no effect while they suffered at-times agonizing pain. Taken together, the court found the forfeiture of his licenses proportional to his offenses.

The court again rejected West’s Tenth Amendment argument as well, finding that forfeiture of his nursing licenses would not usurp the powers governmental authority reserved for the state.

“The State of Iowa is free to reissue a license to defendant in the future, and is free to take whatever other action it wishes to take, if any, about defendant’s authority to practice as a licensed nurse in the future,” Judge Williams wrote.

Having concluded his analysis of the case, Judge Williams declared West’s license subject to forfeiture.