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Although good title to stolen property can sometimes be acquired by prescription, under Honduran law, the statute of limitations does not run against national property of public use.
The moon rock was originally retrieved from the surface of the moon by astronauts on a NASA mission. In 1973, President Nixon, on behalf of the United States, made a gift of the moon rock and plaque to the government and people of the Republic of Honduras. The United States sought civil forfeiture in rem of the moon rock and plaque. It asserted that the moon rock and plaque are stolen property that were introduced into the United States in violation of 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c)(1)(A). The claimant, Alan Rosen -- who purchased the items from a retired Honduran colonel for $ 50,000 -- argued that he is entitled to the return of the property because, among other things, the government failed to establish probable cause.
Were the items Honduran national property, hence, the same were considered stolen and United States was entitled to forfeiture?
Based on an investigation by an expert on Honduran law appointed under Fed. R. Evid. 706(a) and the fact that the claimant was offered the items in 1994, the court concluded that the items disappeared from the Honduran presidential palace between 1990 and 1994. The experts' report concluded that the items became part of the patrimony of Honduras, were national property under Honduras Civ. Code art. 617 (1997) and under Honduras Law for the Protection of Cultural Property, arts. 3 and 4 (1997), could not be acquired through prescription except by special legislation. Whoever took the items committed larceny under Honduras Crim. Code art. 223. 19 U.S.C.S. § 1595a(c) had no "innocent owner" defense. Honduras had title to the items, which were a gift to the country, and did not authorize a transfer. The claimant's statements to undercover agents that possessing lunar material was illegal and that he was concerned that the agents might be working for the U.S. and trying to seize the items showed that the claimant knew he did not have lawful possession of the items, despite a "bill of sale." Probable cause existed.