Supreme Court

This Awful SCOTUS Decision Helped Create Today's Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket

Bennis v. Michigan should be overruled.

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Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most destructive and flagrantly unconstitutional government practices occurring in the United States today. Under its auspices, law enforcement agencies are permitted to seize cash, cars, homes, businesses, and other property from innocent people who have been neither charged nor convicted of any underlying crime. The seized property is then either sold, with the government pocketing all or most of the proceeds, or put to use by the agency that took it. In either instance, law enforcement gets to profit from its policing. All of this occurs despite the fact that the Constitution clearly forbids both the federal government and the states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Library of Congress

How did we get here? The U.S. Supreme Court deserves its share of the blame.

In 1996 the Supreme Court issued its far-reaching decision in the case of Bennis v. Michigan. At issue was the seizure of a Pontiac automobile driven by a man named John Bennis, who was arrested in the car with a prostitute and later convicted of gross indecency. John's wife, Tina, was joint owner of that car and, for understandable reasons, objected when the state took it away from her for a crime that she did not commit. So she went to court to stop the forfeiture proceedings, arguing, correctly, that she was perfectly innocent yet the state had deprived her of her interest in the car without even pretending to offer any sort of due process.

Unfortunately, she lost the case. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist rubber-stamped the entire civil asset forfeiture racket. "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," he wrote. So much for the Due Process Clause.

Predictably, civil asset forfeiture abuse has only increased in the two decades since that permissive ruling was issued.

Here's one representative example. In 2013, a man named James Leonard was stopped by Texas police for speeding on U.S. Highway 59. The cops obtained a search warrant for his car and found a safe in the trunk containing $201,100 in cash and a bill of sale for a house in Pennsylvania. Leonard insisted that the safe belonged to his mother, Lisa Olivia Leonard, and contained her proceeds from a house that she had sold. Lisa Olivia Leonard told the authorities the same thing.

But the police had other ideas. According to the affidavit filed by Officer John Shaver, "in my experience, carrying large amounts of U.S. currently is commonly associated with the illegal narcotics trade. In my experience, Highway 59 is a main thoroughfare for the transport of U.S. currency and narcotics in the illegal drug trade." In other words, the cops declared the $201,100 to be drug money and seized it as "contraband" under the state's sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws. No drug charges were filed in this matter.

Much like Tina Bennis before her, Lisa Olivia Leonard promptly went to court seeking the return of her property. But she lost too. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to take up her case.

There was one small bit of silver lining in Leonard v. Texas, however, and it came in the form of a statement respecting the denial of certiorari filed by Justice Clarence Thomas. In it, Thomas agreed, for procedural reasons, that the Court should not hear this particular case at this particular time. But Thomas also made it clear that when the right case did come along, he would gladly deliver the judicial benchslap that civil asset forfeiture so rightly deserves.

Here's hoping the right case arrives at SCOTUS sooner rather than later. Bennis v. Michigan is an awful decision that has helped to fuel countless injustices committed by police, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials. Its days as a Supreme Court precedent deserve to be numbered.

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NEXT: Whether It's John Conyers or Bad Cops, Due Process Isn't Meant to Protect Government Officials

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  1. 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…

    The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.

    1. Or as Roberts might be inclined to put it: it does not protect against all bad legislative decisions.

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      2. You have to PROTECT YOURSELF from bad government. You CANNOT rely on the constitution anymore.

        You can still open foreign bank and brokerage accounts 100% through the mail, even as an American, and the US or State governments will NEVER be able to forfeit your property:

        http://offshorebanking.wixsite.com/account-list

    2. Apparently, it’s not a pact at all. More a series of loose suggestions.

      1. Constitutional scholars call this the “Captain Barbossa Doctrine”

    3. Law, the Constitution is a subterfuge to gain voluntary enslavement. Once gained, the slave (citizen) is sacrificed for the benefit of the rulers. The rulers may not “know” it, may not admit it to themselves, may prefer to think of themselves as heroes and defenders of a greater good, a good that transcends the individual. So may the victims. A free marketeer may engage in illegal, but not immoral commerce, and feel guilty, especially when caught and vilified.

      This is the way a society may live dysfunctionally for decades. But it is not healthy, despite all the propaganda that glorifies it. It is a crippled existence that is evident by drug use, poverty, sickness, violence, and suicide. And this is just the domestic situation. It spills out into the militaristic suicide/murder pact that people accept as honorable. This insane activity is celebrated by regular rituals. And then people decry war and wonder how to stop it.

      1. Trust an anarchist to confuse bad law with all law.

        It’s a lot like confusing the violent actions of one individual with the non-violent actions of all individuals.

  2. According to the affidavit filed by Officer John Shaver, “in my experience, carrying large amounts of U.S. currently is commonly associated with the illegal narcotics trade. In my experience, Highway 59 is a main thoroughfare for the transport of U.S. currency and narcotics in the illegal drug trade.” In other words, the cops declared the $201,100 to be drug money and seized it as “contraband” under the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws. No drug charges were filed in this matter.

    It is truly astonishing the evil men will do when given authority. I don’t understand how they can stand what they did. But I sadly know that it is not uncommon.

    1. American copping, at all levels, is completely out of control. You will trust these people at your peril ESPECIALLY if you’ve done nothing wrong.

  3. Amendment V
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    The courts just did not want to follow the Constitution which would demand that $1000 in seized cash be compensated by $1000 in cash to the person it was seized from.

    1. Truly, it is a wonder that they have gotten away with this; in the length of time it’s been going on, the scale, and the virtual media blackout of it happening in the first place.

      It really shows you how much the political class care about government malfeasance, at the very least. I suspect that when this does become common information, that it’s going to be considered as a reason why those departments need more money in the form of taxes as well. Because otherwise, how they would they get the funding they’ve become accustomed to?

      Disgusting.

      1. Every argument I get into with a statist comes back to examples like this. It is clear as daylight to me that government is not merely incompetent, but evil. Society and civilization have advanced far enough that there is no sane excuse for centralized monopoly all-powerful government any longer. Contract law and victim prosecution would be enough.

        Over and over, when I bring up things like this, the excuses are always “that’s an aberration, that’s the price we pay as a society for a stable society.” I ask why not go full-Stalin, there’s stability for you. Crickets.

        Government is evil, plain and simple. We may not live in a hard police state like any Communist or Nazi regime, there are still some checks and balances. But when police and politicians are a separate caste, immune to normal civilian accountability, when they can take your money and property without even raising their blood pressure, then it’s at least a soft police state.

        1. But there are insane excuses, made by millions if not billions of people who want governments to either provide for them and/or punish others they don’t like.

    2. The punch line is that taking the money is itself considered the due process.

      1. Considered? By the looter court appointed by two looter parties?

        1. You loot, we shoot. It’s not just for disasters.

  4. Jesus Christ. The government and its racket boys straight up stole Leonard’s money.

    I’m just nodding my head in complete disbelief. Say all the jokes you want about Canada but we don’t have this state sanctioned criminal enterprise going.

    1. You guys don’t even have any criminals lol.

      1. All large nations have Govt. criminals!!!….Ask Christians in Canada about Cultural Marxist/LGBT hero Trudeau!!

  5. Ignorant feminists are ignorant

    For the past decade, I’ve been womanspreading everywhere ? on television, on the tube and on my mum’s dining table. Naturally, I now wear trousers most of the time, and my only rule is to make sure I’m always aware of the people around me. As much as I want to make a point, I refuse to become like the entitled manspreaders who force women to contort themselves into tiny spaces. Unlike them, I only spread out if I have the space to do so.

    Bless her heart. There is actually a biological reason for manspreading. A man sitting with legs straight out and close together is similar to you holding your arms out and constricting your tits, except worse.

    1. And no woman ever takes up more space than absolutely necessary.

      She clearly is not the beneficiary of nearly enough mansplanation.

      1. *Looks at a woman on the subway with two big bags, a coat she isn’t wearing, and a purse.*

        *Raises a single eyebrow*

    2. If you have to take up 2 seats you’re too fat. Spread within the seat width.

    3. If you have to take up 2 seats you’re too fat. Spread within the seat width.

  6. Fuck off Shaver

  7. “Interesting” that Scalia and Thomas both voted with Rehnquist on this one, with Ginzberg supplying the “swing” vote.

  8. It’s my experience in my capacity as citizen that cops are violent, raping, thieving, unaccountable thugs, and I have reason to believe that this particular highway is commonly used for cop thuggery. Now hand over your weapon and vehicle and your bank account number.

    1. BANG!
      STOP RESISTING!
      BANG! BANG! BANG!
      “I followed procedures — — — “

    2. But da policeman is our friend!!!

      1. So is the priest.

    3. I completely agree with your comment, but this comment makes your support for everything government here on Reason is so quaint!

  9. “Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist rubber-stamped the entire civil asset forfeiture racket. “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,””

    This thought process actually worked? kind of a FYTW, how? Hope no one tries to use that line against gun manufactures when it comes to gun crimes. it worked once it may work again

  10. La Suprema Corte and Damon both fail to identify causality. On 9/11 of 1986 California Republican Lundgen (a rabid papist) injected “good faith” looting and “substitute” asset forfeiture into a “Just Say No” prohibitionist bill. This is recorded thus: H.AMDT.1201 Amendment Offered by Representative Lungren. Amendment to allow the forfeiture of substitute assets when a convicted drug dealer has hidden drug profits from prosecutors. The result came 10/27/1986. That looterfest became Public Law No: 99-570. (Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986). This took time to become effective, and when it did we had the Stock Market Crash of 1987 and the Great Depression that promptly followed. This later court decision was a louder leper’s bell of the approaching looter which, under George Waffen Bush, heralded the even worse faith-based asset-forfeiture Depression which kicked in in 2007. It’s a real pity Obama’s party wasn’t repeal-happy like FDR’s party was in 1932.

    1. Heck, Obummy’s party increased the Theft 10-fold!!!

  11. According to the affidavit filed by Officer John Shaver, “in my experience, carrying large amounts of U.S. currently is commonly associated with the illegal narcotics trade.”

    It’s a safe bet that if Mr. Shaver were ever stopped for a traffic infraction outside his jurisdiction and the apprehending officer moved to to seize cash and valuables that he was carrying, the first words out of his mouth would be, “but, I’m a cop!”

  12. The Supreme Court made another blunder when they ruled that law enforcement is allowed to break the law while enforcing the law–that is not helpful to citizens of the US

  13. The problem comes from what the definition of “due process” is.
    Unfortunately, courts have accepted the mere passing of a law, such as allowing the assets of a criminal to be seized, as that criminal having had his/her due process. Instead of due process being something that is applied in each individual’s case, as I believe the Framers intended.
    Shit, the Supremes have embraced this ludicrous premise of “substantive due process”, which means there hasn’t been any due process, at all, but that they think there should have been. See: 0bergefell.

    1. “Out here, due process is a bullet!”

      House points awarded for movie, character, and actor.

  14. If Leonard is not the right case, what is? Or does the “right case” never come along. Seems like just an excuse by one judge to let a wrong continue.

  15. So what they’re saying is carrying more than a small amount of cash is illegal and subject to confiscation, glad to know. Maybe they should actually write a law saying that if they want that to be the case. (Or rather they shouldn’t write such a law, because it shouldn’t be illegal)

  16. Civil asset forfeiture law should be a wake-up call to those who support the state. But it isn’t. It doesn’t stop voters from voting or defending “the rule of law”. It doesn’t suddenly make a superstitious statist a rational voluntaryist. Or, even gradually make a voluntaryist. Why? What would it take? Try asking a statist what it would take for the adoption of a non-violent political paradigm. Would the statist understand the question? Probably not. If the statist did, the closest to a voluntary paradigm the statist could imagine would be a world of individuals fighting each other or living separate lives. Organizing voluntarily and governing without a gun to their head would be unimaginable. Yet it has happened and in fact is the forerunner to all states. States come later, much later in social organization. And they are not strong abusive monsters like the US Empire. Today’s monster grew slowly over 200+ years, abet the early signs and abuses of principle were there. They were ignored as if they were correctable mistakes. But those abuses of power were not avoidable. They were humans being human. Given power humans abuse it. The greater the power the greater the abuses. And it will continue until the breaking point of the victims is so widespread that violence is used to counter the violence in the political paradigm. That’s inevitable, unless the paradigm can be rejected and replaced with a non-violent one. Will it be? Or will history repeat?

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