Supreme Court Limits Government's Power to Seize Property

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 08, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Most Americans hadn't heard of civil forfeiture before John Oliver did a deep dive on the practice two years ago. And it seems like his critique and others like it have gotten not just the attention of citizens, but of judges as well. After the rampant expansion of law enforcement entities seizing assets in criminal cases, largely with judicial support, the Supreme Court looks like it may be finally reigning in the practice.

A unanimous Court ruled that the federal government overstepped its bounds by seizing personal property it could not prove had actually been "tainted" by criminal activity.

Tennessee Waltz

The Honeycutt brothers of Tennessee, Tony and Terry, were indicted on several federal drug crimes including conspiracy to distribute a product used in methamphetamine production, namely, 20,000 water filters from which the pair knew meth cooks could extract iodine. The government was looking to extract $269,751.98 from the Honeycutts it alleged they made from the scheme and funneled back into Tony's hardware store. Tony pleaded guilty and agreed to fork over $200,000. Terry went to trial and was convicted, so the government came calling for the remaining $69,751.98.

A district court declined to enter a forfeiture judgment against Terry, concluding he was merely a salaried employee, and therefore not in a position to receive any of the profits from the sales. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding both brothers liable for any and all conspiracy proceeds. But that wasn't enough for the Supreme Court, which ruled that forfeiture is limited to property a defendant actually acquired as the result of the crime, and which the government could not prove in Terry's case.

Two Left Feet

"Congress did not authorize the government to confiscate substitute property from other defendants or co-conspirators," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the Court, referring to 21 U.S.C. §853(a), which allows for property forfeiture in drug crimes cases. "It authorized the government to confiscate assets only from the defendant who initially acquired the property and who bears responsibility for its dissipation."

The forfeiture statute allows the government to seize "any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of [the criminal] violation." But it turns out that the property needs to be more than an hourly salary you get from your brother to work at his hardware store. And the Court's ruling may indicate that there are some limits to criminal forfeiture, even in federal drug cases.

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