Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas Attacks Civil Asset Forfeiture, Lower Court Follows His Lead

Asset forfeiture "has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses."


U.S. Supreme Court

In March the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman fighting for the return of over $200,000 in cash that the police seized from her family. Although neither Lisa Olivia Leonard nor any of her relatives were ever charged with any underlying crime connected to the cash, the state's sweeping asset forfeiture laws allowed the authorities to take the money.

The Supreme Court offered no explanation when it refused to hear Leonard v. Texas. But one member of the Court did speak up in protest. In a statement respecting the denial of certiorari, Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that in his view modern asset forfeiture law is fundamentally incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. Yesterday, one of the most influential federal appellate courts in the country—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—signaled its agreement with Thomas' assessment in a notable decision in favor of an innocent couple fighting for the return of $17,900 in cash seized by the police.

As Thomas explained in Leonard v. Texas, "this system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses." For one thing, "because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture." For another, this sort of police abuse disproportionately harms disadvantaged groups. "These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings," he observed. "Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home."

To make matters worse, Thomas continued, the Supreme Court's previous rulings in this area do not line up with the text of the Constitution, which "presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation." Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards.

In short, Justice Thomas offered a searing indictment of modern civil asset forfeiture and called on the judiciary to start reconsidering its flawed approach.

The D.C. Circuit got the message. In its opinion yesterday in United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars in United States Currency, the D.C. Circuit repeatedly cited Thomas' Leonard v. Texas statement while ruling in favor of a New York City couple that went to court seeking the return of $17,900 in cash seized by law enforcement officials. Once again, the police took the money despite the fact that no underlying criminal charges were ever filed. But after Angela Rodriguez and Joyce Copeland submitted a claim requesting the return of their seized money, a federal district judge ruled that they lacked standing, thus ending their case and leaving the government in possession of their cash. Describing the legal process that led to this result as "onerous, unfair, and unrealistic," the D.C. Circuit reversed the district court.

"The pair has a right to contest whether the money is subject to forfeiture," the D.C. Circuit held. "Despite the government's best efforts, this will remain an adversary proceeding." Now that their standing to bring suit has been recognized, Rodriguez and Copeland will continue their legal battle to get their money back.

Critics of civil asset forfeiture should be heartened by this ruling. Not only did it vindicate the legal standing of innocent people fighting for the return of their own money, it shows that the lower courts are starting to heed Justice Thomas' call to arms against asset forfeiture abuse.