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4. Bennis v. Michigan (1996)
In September 1988 a Michigan couple named John and Tina Bennis bought a 1977 Pontiac automobile for the price of $600, which they split between them. Three weeks later, on the night of October 3, John was arrested by Detroit police after picking up a prostitute in the car and later charged and convicted of gross indecency. Sensing an opportunity, the county prosecutor turned to a Michigan statute allowing for the seizure of property used for the purposes of “lewdness, assignation or prostitution” and brought an asset forfeiture action targeting the car.
Because Tina Bennis was a part owner of the car and had been convicted of no crime, she innocently assumed her right to life, liberty, and property under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment would prevent the government from robbing her of her ride. The U.S. Supreme Court saw things differently. “An owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use,” wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist. By rejecting Bennis’ “innocent owner” defense, the Supreme Court kicked the door open to even greater asset forfeiture abuse.
Next: The Fourth Amendment Under Fire.