U.S. Asks Appeals Court to Rehear Ruling Over Rare ‘Double Eagle’ Coins by Peter Loftus |
1:05 pm ET Jul 2, 2015
The U.S. government hasn’t
given up its multiyear fight to hang on to 10 rare gold
coins that a federal appeals court recently ruled should
be given back to the heirs of a Philadelphia coin dealer
who obtained them decades ago under mysterious circumstances.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia
late Wednesday filed a petition asking the full Third U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a three-judge panel’s
2-1 decision in April ordering the U.S. Mint to return the
coins to the daughter and grandsons of the late coin dealer,
Israel Switt. The April ruling reversed a 2011 civil jury
verdict concluding that the Mint may keep the valuable coins.
The government argues that Mr. Switt obtained
the coins illicitly, and that they have always belonged
to the government. In its petition, the Justice Department
calls the April court opinion a “miscarriage of justice”
that is based on a misreading of laws dictating how the
government may seize property.
“The family of a thief now stands to benefit
in the millions of dollars on the basis of property that
belongs to the people of the United States,” government
lawyers wrote in their 77-page petition.
The government’s petition ensures that the
case will live on at least a little while longer, more than
80 years after the coins in question were minted, and more
than a decade after Mr. Switt’s daughter, Joan Langbord,
claimed to have found the coins in a safe-deposit box.
The disputed coins are among the rarest
and most valuable in the world. In coin vernacular, which
dubs a $10 coin an “Eagle,” the $20 pieces are known as
Double Eagles. They feature a soaring eagle and liberty
figure resembling a Greek goddess etched on opposite sides,
and were designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in
the early 1900s at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt,
who wanted American coins to be more beautiful. More than
445,000 Double Eagles were minted in 1933, but before most
of them could be circulated President Franklin D. Roosevelt
banned the payout of gold coins to combat a financial crisis.
Most of the 1933 Double Eagles were melted
into gold bars, but some escaped destruction and have surfaced
over the years. One sold for about $7.6 million at a 2002
The Justice Department argued in court papers
and at the 2011 trial that a cashier at the Philadelphia
Mint in the 1930s was the likely source of coins that left
the Mint illicitly, and they somehow got into the hands
of Mr. Switt, who died in 1990. His heirs and their lawyer
countered that there was no evidence the coins were stolen
In 2003, Ms. Langbord said she discovered
the 10 coins in a family safe-deposit box. She and her sons,
Roy and David Langbord, provided the coins to the U.S. Mint
to be authenticated. The Mint retained the coins, arguing
that they were government property because they were never
supposed to be released into circulation.
The Langbords sued the government in 2006
seeking to recover the coins, alleging they were seized
without due process. Following a civil trial in U.S. District
Court in Philadelphia, a jury concluded in July 2011 the
U.S. proved its case that the coins should be forfeited
by the Langbord family. LINK: The coins have been stored
at the U.S. Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Ky.
The family appealed, and in April the appeals
panel said the coins should be returned because the government
didn’t follow the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000.
That law requires the government to file a complaint for
judicial forfeiture within 90 days of seizing property that
someone else purports to own, or else to return the property.
The appellate panel said the government did not make a timely
filing in the Langbord case, and sent the case back to the
district court to order the coins returned.
In its petition for a rehearing, the government
argues that it didn’t need to file a forfeiture complaint
within 90 days of seizing the coins because the government
was always the rightful owner of the coins. “When the government
finds and recovers actual property stolen from it (as opposed
to proceeds), it does not ‘forfeit’ it. It instead acts
to recover it,” the government said in its petition.
An attorney for the Langbord family, Barry
Berke, declined to comment.