Supreme Court Rules Unanimously that Civil Forfeiture Laws for Criminal Violations are UnjustThe US Supreme Court recently ruled that limits must be placed on the practice known as civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is the taking of private property, including homes, cars, and cash, that were used to commit a crime. While the aim of civil forfeiture laws was to prevent the properties from being used for other crimes and to punish the wrongdoers, both conservatives and liberals complained that the process was being abused. The recent court ruling will permit attorneys and property owners to argue that the forfeitures are not properly or proportionately related to the alleged criminal conduct.

The facts of the Supreme Court case

In the case before the US Supreme court, an Indiana man pled guilty to selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. In addition to his sentence of house arrest for one year, five years’ probation, and fines and fees, the defendant’s $42,000 Land Rover was seized. The defendant had purchased the Land Rover with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.

The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines” barred the government from seizing the vehicle. The 9-0 decision also ruled that this Eighth Amendment prohibition applies to the states. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote:

“The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming. For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”

Quoting from an earlier decision, she wrote that even absent a political motive, “fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a state money.’”

The ruling does not mean that personal assets can’t be seized. The ruling does mean that defendants can now argue, at the state level, that the seizure is “excessive.”

Justice Ginsburg’s assertion that law enforcement uses civil forfeiture for revenue was supported by the New York Times article which wrote “In fiscal year 2018, state and local agencies received $400 million through this arrangement, known as equitable sharing.”

The US Supreme Court did not rule directly that the seizure of the Land Rover was excessive. Rather, it sent the case back to Indiana for further review. Justice Ginsburg suggested that the seizure of the vehicle, worth four times as much as the maximum $10,000 fine was not proportional. She noted that every state has their own constitution provisions regarding excessive fines. The new decision will impact the interpretations of those state provisions.

Civil forfeiture has always been a problem

The concerns about civil forfeiture are that the seizing of property doesn’t require that that a defendant be convicted – he/she doesn’t even have to be charged. All that is needed to seize the property is “proof that the property at issue was used in connection with a crime.” The burden on the property owner is to then show that the property wasn’t used in the crime, or that the property was used without the owner’s consent.

But how does a person prove a negative?

In one cited example, Philadelphia law enforcement seized a couple’s home when their son was arrested on “charges of a making a $40 drug sale there.” How can such an act be justified?

Firm founder Bryan Delius has spent years arguing against the destructive nature of civil forfeiture. That is why, in 2017, he went before the House Criminal Justice subcommittee to argue against the practice. You can watch those proceedings here.

At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, we file appellate actions, when warranted, in addition to trying cases before juries. We also work to have cases dismissed or resolved before a jury trial. We represent defendants who live in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the surrounding Tennessee areas. To speak with an aggressive criminal defense lawyer, please call us at (865) 428-8780 or use our contact form to make an appointment.