by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to hear Lisa Olivia Leonard’s challenge to Texas’s civil asset forfeiture law. The decision to deny certiorary, which was based on procedural grounds, was unanimous. However, Justice Thomas appended a statement to the notice of denial in which he made it clear that, in his view at least, the country’s civil asset forfeiture laws are constutionally suspect. Here are some excerpts from his statement, but you really should read the whole thing:
This petition asks an important question: whether modern civil-forfeiture statutes can be squared with the Due Process Clause and our Nation’s history. …
Modern civil forfeiture statutes are plainly designed, at least in part, to punish the owner of property used for criminal purposes. When a state wishes to punish one of its citizens, it ordinarily proceeds against the defendant personally (known as “in personam”), and in many cases it must provide the defendant with full criminal procedural protections. Nevertheless, for reasons discussed below, this Court permits prosecutors seeking forfeiture to proceed against the property (known as “in rem”) and to do so civilly.
In rem proceedings often enable the government to seize the property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent (though some statutes, including the one here, provide for an innocent-owner defense). Civil proceedings often lack certain procedural protections that accompany criminal proceedings, such as the right to a jury trial and a heightened standard of proof.
Partially as a result of this distinct legal regime, civil forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and highly profitable. … And because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture.
This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. …
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.
The Court has justified its unique constitutional treatment of civil forfeiture largely by reference to a discrete historical practice that existed at the time of the founding. “‘English Law provided for statutory forfeitures of offending objects used in violation of the customs and revenue laws.’” This practice “took hold in the United States,” where the “First Congress passed laws subjecting ships and cargos involved in customs offenses to forfeiture.”
Other early statutes also provided for the forfeiture of pirate ships. These early statutes permitted the government to proceed in rem under the fiction that the thing itself, rather than the owner, was guilty of the crime. And, because these suits were in rem rather than in personam, they typically proceeded civilly rather than criminally.
In the absence of this historical practice, the Constitution presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation. I am skeptical that this historical practice is capable of sustaining, as a constitutional matter, the contours of modern practice, for two reasons.
First, historical forfeiture laws were narrower in most respects than modern ones. Most obviously, they were limited to a few specific subject matters, such as customs and piracy. Proceeding in rem in those cases was often justified by necessity, because the party responsible for the crime was frequently located overseas and thus beyond the personal jurisdiction of United States courts.
These laws were also narrower with respect to the type of property they encompassed. For example, they typically covered only the instrumentalities of the crime (such as the vessel used to transport the goods), not the derivative proceeds of the crime (such as property purchased with money from the sale of the illegal goods).
Second, it is unclear whether courts historically permitted forfeiture actions to proceed civilly in all respects. Some of this Court’s early cases suggested that forfeiture actions were in the nature of criminal proceedings. Whether forfeiture is characterized as civil or criminal carries important implications for a variety of procedural protections, including the right to a jury trial and the proper standard of proof. Indeed, as relevant in this case, there is some evidence that the government was historically required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.