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Supreme Court Upholds Civil Forfeiture In Drug Cases

Monday, 24 June 1996

The United States Supreme Court ruled that the government may both prosecute individuals on drug charges for criminal violations and seize their property without violating constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

Writing the decision for the court, Justice William Rehnquist wrote that, "We hold that these ... civil forfeitures are neither punishment nor criminal for the purposes of double jeopardy." Rather, Rehnquist defined forfeitures as remedial civil sanctions. Ironically, the high court has ruled in earlier cases that fines and tax stamps on illicit drugs may, in some circumstances, constitute punishment under the law and are applicable to double jeopardy.

The court further maintained that Congress had intended forfeiture to be a civil act and noted that, "Requiring the forfeiture of property ... ensures that [owners] will not permit that property to be used for illegal purposes." The opinion added that the court has a long history of upholding forfeiture as constitutional, although many of the cases cited involved either contraband (e.g., unlicensed firearms, pirated goods, etc.) or property that was integrally involved in the commission of a crime. This latter point led lone dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens to write, "There is simply no rational basis for characterizing the seizure of [a] ... home as anything other than punishment for [a] crime. The house was neither proceeds nor contraband and its value had no relation to the government's authority to seize it."

"During oral arguments [during which I was present,] several justices found the government's argument intellectually incoherent," explained NORML Legal Committee Member Jeffrey Steinborn. "In the opinion, they accept the government's theory. [Therefore,] we can expect the Supreme Court to continue to indulge the government and we can expect the government to indulge in runaway forfeiture."

According to government statistics, the Justice Department collected nearly $550 million in assets from civil forfeiture in 1994. Approximately $235 million went directly to state and local law enforcement agencies.

For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre of NORML @ (202) 483-5500 or F.E.A.R. (Forfeiture Endangers American Rights) @ (415) 388-8128. F.E.A.R. may be contacted on the Internet @: http://www.fear.org