Good Decision

A Supreme Court ruling applies due process to civil forfeiture.


In December, the Supreme Court made it tougher for law-enforcement agents to seize property from innocent owners. (See "Ill-Gotten Gains," August/September 1993) In U.S. v. James Daniel Good Real Property, it affirmed the principle that "individual freedom finds tangible expression in property rights."

In January 1985, Hawaii police officers found 89 pounds of marijuana, along with marijuana seeds and hashish, at Good's house. Good was convicted, fined, and sentenced to one year in jail and five years' probation. Four-and-a-half years later, after Good had served his time in state prison, federal agents used a civil-forfeiture proceeding to seize Good's house and his four-acre lot. The agents argued that the property had been used in 1985 to facilitate the commission of a federal drug offense. A U.S. magistrate allowed the property to be seized without notifying Good in advance.

Good filed a claim to have his land and home returned, saying he was denied due process when the government seized his property without first holding a hearing. The Court sided with Good. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forfeiture laws do permit the government to seize personal property—money, cars, or other assets that can be easily disposed of—without a hearing. But before the government can seize real property, such as houses or land, it must give the owner a hearing. In Good's case, he probably would have lost the property anyway, but an innocent owner could prevail at such a hearing, thereby preventing the seizure.

"Although Congress designed the drug forfeiture statute to be a powerful instrument in enforcement of the drug laws," wrote Kennedy, "it did not intend to deprive innocent owners of their property." (Kennedy was joined by Justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)

Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which filed an amicus brief for Good, says this decision "places a significant limit on [civil] forfeiture." Also, for the first time since the early 1970s, Bullock says, "the Court showed profound respect for private property rights." In his dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist warned that the majority may have made it easier for individuals to challenge property seizures in tax cases.