The Not-So-Guilty Owner Defense


After police found marijuana growing in the basement of Harold Von Hofe's Branford, Connecticut, home, the federal government moved to seize the house. That much is par for the course. The surprising part is that a federal appeals court stepped in, ruling last week that Von Hofe's share of the house was fair game, but the part belonging to his wife, Kathleen, was not. Kathleen Von Hofe's attempt to use the "innocent owner" defense created by the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 failed because a jury found that she was aware of her husband's hobby. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit concluded that seizing her half of the house, worth about $124,000, would violate the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause, which the Supreme Court has said applies to forfeitures with a punitive purpose. "Mrs. von Hofe's offensive conduct boils down to her joint ownership of 32 Medley Lane and silence in the face of her husband's decision to grow 20 marijuana in their basement almost thirty years into their marriage," the court said. "And yet she is being punished as if she were distributing drugs, when the district court concluded as a matter of fact that she had no knowledge of any distribution or remuneration." According to Kathleen Von Hofe's lawyer, she may end up taking out a mortgage to buy what is now the government's half of the house.