In Rem Jurisdiction

The legal term in rem jurisdiction refers to whether or not the court has jurisdiction over the subject matter or item that is the subject of the legal action. Legal actions, such as civil lawsuits and injunctions must be heard by the court that has jurisdiction over the geographical area in which the item is located or action took place.

In such a case, the judgment of the court must be enforced on the item or property itself, not a person. This legal concept often pertains to such actions as partitioning land, actions to quiet title, or enforcement of a lien on real property. To explore this concept, consider the following in rem jurisdiction definition.

Definition of In Rem

Preposition

  1. Against or pertaining to a thing itself.

Origin

Latin   in rem

Property Subject to In Rem Judgment

An in rem legal action does not pertain to any owner of the property over which judgment is made, but pertains to the disposition or rights over the specific property that will apply to everyone from that point forward. For example, a shipping container containing live exotic cats that cannot be legally brought into the U.S. is intercepted by Customs. The government files criminal charges against the parties involved, but that still leaves the issue of what to do with the cats. An in rem proceeding could be held in which the court decides whether the cats should be shipped back to their home country, or whether other action should be taken. The court’s judgment in this case applies only to the cats themselves, and has no bearing on the individuals responsible for bringing them into the country.

A court has the power to decide legal ownership of any personal or real property within its geographical boundaries. This type of in rem action originally came up in cases where property existed with no identifiable owner. In this case, notice would be published seeking anyone claiming ownership of the property. In the event no one came forward, or the person could not prove ownership, the court would decide who should be given ownership of, or control over, the property.

For example, Sandra finds a valuable diamond ring on the subway. After following certain procedures, including publication seeking the ring’s owner, an in rem hearing may be held to decide whether Sandra can now claim ownership of the ring.

Conditions to Exercising In Rem Jurisdiction

In order for a court to exercise jurisdiction over personal or real property, five conditions must be met:

  1. Value of Property – The property in question must be valuable
  2. Location of Property – The property must be located in the geographical jurisdiction of the court at the time the action is filed.
  3. Control of Property – While the court is not required to have physical possession of the property, it must have control of the property to the exclusion of the parties.
  4. Procedural Due Process – All parties who might have a claim to the property must be notified of the court proceeding, and be given the opportunity to make their claim. If the identity of potential claimants is not known, this may be satisfied by publication in a local newspaper.
  5. Substantive Due Process – Because in rem jurisdiction is often exercised over property in which the government has an interest, the court must protect potential claim to the property by individuals. This means claimants are not required to have a contract or other written proof to bring their claim.

Examples of Cases Subject to In Rem Jurisdiction

Because the term applies to cases determining the disposition or ownership of property, the potential subjects vary widely. From bottles of wine to shipwrecks, federal and state courts alike have heard many such cases through the years.

The Wreckage of the Titanic

Two years after the 1985 discovery of the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic, the salvage company Titanic Ventures explored the wreckage and brought up nearly 2,000 artifacts. In 1993, Titanic Ventures’ parent company, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (“R.M.S.T.), filed an in rem action acting to be declared “the true, sole and exclusive owner of any items salvaged from the wreck.” The court issued a warrant directing the U.S. Marshal to arrest the wreck and all artifacts, both already salvaged and waiting to be salvaged. The granting of ownership of the wreckage of the Titanic was made under the understanding that R.M.S.T. intended to put the artifacts on display, making money from admissions rather than from sale of the items.

Asset Forfeitures in Drug Cases

U.S. law supports the seizure of valuable assets belonging to an individual accused of drug-related offenses. The law enforcement agency confiscating the property is allowed to keep the property, using it in future law enforcement endeavors. In an attempt to prevent abuse of law enforcement agencies seizing property belonging to people accused of drug offenses but not convicted, some jurisdictions require an in rem hearing to determine disposition of the property.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Quiet Title – a court proceeding held to establish right of ownership of real property, or personal property that has a title.
  • Real Property – land and property attached or fixed directly to the land, including buildings and structures.
  • Personal Property – any item that is moveable and not fixed to real property.
  • Assets – any valuable thing, or property owned by a person or entity, regarded as being of value.
  • Distribution of Assets – the dissemination or giving out of assets.

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