Forfeitures Revisited: Bringing Principle to Practice in Federal Court
63 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2013
Date Written: 2012
Dramatically expanded use of federal forfeitures since the 1980s has raised persistent concerns about government overreaching in the seizure of private property. The Supreme Court failed to address the problem in Bennis v. Michigan (1996), upholding the forfeiture of property of an entirely innocent owner, relying on the ancient and unconvincing principle that the property itself is guilty. Congress stepped in to curb law enforcement’s worst abuses of this lucrative practice in 2000, but the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act was a patchwork effort that tweaked the rules without revisiting the unsatisfying policies behind them. Thus a comprehensive, policy-based re-examination of forfeiture doctrines is overdue. This re-examination reveals three distinct and dissimilar categories of forfeitures — (1) contraband, (2) proceeds of crime, and (3) property used to facilitate crime — which are lumped together into a one-size-fits-all procedure. Because each of these types of forfeitures is based on distinct policy objectives, and because each poses different risks to the legitimate interests of property owners, separate procedures are required for each. Contraband forfeitures, which protect public health and welfare, can be effected on probable cause alone. Proceeds forfeitures, which effect a nonpunitive deterrence under the principle of unjust enrichment, raise factual questions that require stronger procedural safeguards and a higher burden of proof. Facilitating property forfeitures, which give rise to the worst abuses of the procedure, and which serve the most dubious of policy objectives, are difficult to justify under any procedure. A clearer articulation and understanding of the policy behind each type of forfeiture will set the stage for a more comprehensive and coherent reform. In the meantime, it can help courts to interpret and apply existing standards — including Eighth Amendment excessive fines analysis — in a more principled way. A policy-based approach, under a new taxonomy of forfeitures, is essential to address the persistent problems with federal forfeiture procedure and bring coherence and equity to the practice in federal court.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation