The Founders' Forfeiture
66 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2019
Date Written: May 23, 2019
Civil forfeiture is, in a word, controversial. Critics allege that law enforcement authorities use forfeiture as means of appropriating valuable assets from often-innocent victims free of the constraints of criminal process. Yet despite recent statutory reforms, a significant obstacle to meaningful change remains: Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, the Constitution imposes few limits on civil forfeiture. Relying on a perceived historical tradition of unfettered government power to seize and keep private property in response to legal violations, the Court has consistently rejected claims to constitutional protections. Faced with an unfriendly historical tradition, forfeiture’s critics have tried to limit history’s relevance by asserting that forfeiture was traditionally used for limited purposes, but such arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
As this Article explains, forfeiture’s critics are right, but for the wrong reasons. Based on original research into more than 500 unpublished federal forfeiture cases from 1789 to 1807, this Article shows — for the first time — that forfeiture in the Founding era was significantly constrained. But not by judges. Instead, concern over forfeiture’s potential to impose massive penalties for minor and technical legal violations spurred Alexander Hamilton and the First Congress to establish executive-branch authority to return seized property to those who plausibly claimed a lack of fraudulent intent. What is more, Hamilton and subsequent Treasury Secretaries understood themselves to be obligated to exercise that authority to its fullest extent — which they did, remitting forfeitures in over 90% of cases presented to them. The result was an early forfeiture regime that was expansive in theory, but in practice was constrained by a deep belief in the impropriety of taking property from those who inadvertently broke the law.
Understanding early forfeiture’s true nature has significant implications for current debate about its proper limits. The existence of meaningful constraints in the Founding era calls into question key historical propositions underlying the Court’s permissive modern jurisprudence, and suggests that history may offer an affirmative basis for identifying greater constitutional protections today. This is also an opportune moment to reexamine forfeiture’s historical bona fides. In addition to a growing public outcry over civil forfeiture, there are hints that members of the current Supreme Court may be willing to reconsider its constitutionality.
Keywords: civil forfeiture, Fifth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, legal history, U.S. history, Alexander Hamilton
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