Justice Thomas, Civil Asset Forfeitures, and Punitive Damages
17 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 20, 2017
For centuries, governments have used civil asset forfeiture laws to seize property used in criminal activity and then use civil proceedings to take ownership of that same property. Forfeitures have caught the attention of media, John Oliver, and the Supreme Court. In March, because of waiver, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Leonard v. Texas, a case that claimed Texas’s civil forfeiture laws violated due process. Justice Thomas agreed with the denial, but wrote separately to question the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws. The Court has always held civil asset forfeitures to be constitutional because of their long existence, and now Justice Thomas, the originalist, seems ready to disregard that history.
This Essay is the first to note the seeming inconsistency in Justice Thomas’s applications of originalism to two civil punishments—civil forfeitures and punitive damages. Justice Thomas seems eager to re-evaluate the constitutionality of civil forfeitures despite their long history. Justice Thomas has never, however, publicly entertained the possibility that history does not justify the constitutionality of punitive damages. No obvious reason exists to explain the distinction.
The Essay also generally examines the similarities between civil forfeitures and punitive damages, and cautions that even with Justice Thomas’s vote, any enthusiasm that the Court will find civil forfeitures unconstitutional should be tempered. The Court—minus Justice Thomas—eventually defined some constitutional limitations for the civil imposition of punitive damages, but little reform resulted until legislatures got involved.
Keywords: civil asset forfeitures, punitive damages, Justice Thomas, originalism, constitutionality, reform
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