Degen v. United States – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Degen v. United States (517 U.S. 820 [1996]) the Supreme Court revisited the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. Degen, a Swiss citizen, was indicted in Federal District Court in Nevada for drug distribution and money laundering. In addition, a civil forfeiture proceeding was commenced against properties in the United States claimed to have been obtained with ill-gotten gains. Degen had been residing in Switzerland since 1988 and there was no extradition treaty obliging the Swiss to return him. The question presented was whether the fugitive disentitlement doctrine could be invoked to prohibit the defendant from answering in the civil forfeiture case.

The Supreme Court declined to invoke any per se dismissal rule. It held that where there existed alternative means to protect the Government's interests, such as sanctions or the dismissal for the failure to comply with discovery demands, an automatic dismissal rule was not warranted.

In Degen, the Court held that such a consideration, along with that of deterrence, were substantial interests but that they should be sparingly applied. "It remains the case, however, that the sanction of disentitlement is most severe and so could disserve the dignitary purposes for which it is invoked. The dignity of a court derives from the respect accorded its judgments. That respect is eroded, not enhanced, by too free a recourse to rules foreclosing consideration of claims on the merits" (Degen, 517 U.S. at 828).

"Without resolving whether Degen is a fugitive in all the senses of the word debated by the parties, we acknowledge disquiet at the spectacle of a criminal defendant reposing in Switzerland, beyond the reach of our criminal courts, while at the same time mailing papers to the court in a related civil action and expecting them to be honored. ... A court-made rule striking Degen's claims and entering summary judgment against him as a sanction, however, would be an arbitrary response to the conduct it is supposed to redress or discourage." (Degen 517 U.S. at 828.)