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

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

U.S. Supreme CourtU.S. Supreme CourtIn 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.

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Thomas, keep up these good criticisms of government abuse like this.

    There have been a few decisions Thomas has written where he is pro Nanny-State.

  • ||

    Yes. There are too many cases of him approving all sorts of statist authoritarian crap, as long as it isn´t federal statist authoritarian crap. In this case, he wrote a good dissent.

  • Hugh Akston||

    United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars in United States Currency

    This country isn't worth saving

  • Arcxjo||

    That was clear after "United States v. Ninety-Five Barrels, More or Less, Alleged Apple Cider Vinegar"

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    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,

    What. The. Fuck.

    "Your Honor, we were robbed!"

    "Sorry, you lack standing. Case dismissed!"

  • Hugh Akston||

    The criminal case isn't against them, but the evil law-breaking money they were transporting. This is what a lawn odor regime looks like.

  • Number 2||

    Lawn order regime?

  • Curtisls701||

    Perhaps means lawn odor?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Lawn odor is caused by incontinent lawn skunks and lawn skanks, such as greedy money-grubbing minions of Government Almighty.

  • ToCa81||

    Seriously we need to implement a system of evaluation for the judicial branch. I see way too many nonsensical rulings by judges every other day it seems. They need to be held accountable for the flippant ignorance they display toward the bill of rights.

  • croaker||

    Perhaps they should also receive the designation of "politician" per the Court of Political Justice.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is obvious to all but law enforcement and their boot lickers.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars in United States Currency

    Shit like this is why I'm convinced that this is actually the Bizarro world version of a sane parallel universe.

  • Random Axe Of Kindness||

    This has to be a glitch in the matrix, right?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars in United States Currency

    So did the currency actually take the stand or just exercise its 5th amendment rights?

  • ace_m82||

    Silly, currency has no rights.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Well, yes, currency has no rights, but it also cannot commit a crime, and yet here we are with currency officially named as a defendent.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>lacked standing,

    Most dollars, vehicles, and house defendants could not testify *they* were not the subject of felonious transactions...

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Alright, ignorant question here: how can a court cite remarks from a dissent over certiorari? Don't citations have to be for precedential stuff, such as the winning side?

  • DRM||

    No, a court can cite whatever reasoning it likes in its decisions, whether it's from a decision, a concurrence, a dissent, Blackstone's Commentaries, a law review article, a foreign court, or whatever. If I've got an op-ed in the Podunk Gazette, and the court finds its legal reasoning persuasive, it can go ahead and cite that if it likes.

    It's only bound by non-dicta in specific decisions made by a higher authority in its own specific chain, but that's not the same thing as citing something.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Thanks. I suppose that means that a dissent can't be cited only if it contradicts the majority opinion or if it contradicts established precedent then?

  • DRM||

    No.

    A citation is the same thing in a court decision as it is in an academic paper. A court can cite anything it wants.

    If the court, however, rules against binding precedent, it'll get slapped down on appeal, except in the rare cases the court at or above the level that set the precedent decides to override the binding precedent. So if a decision goes against a binding precedent, it's actually unusually likely to cite dissents and the like as grounds for its reasoning, in hopes the reasoning will convince a higher court to reverse itself in favor of the old dissent.

  • crufus||

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certiorari

    ...The granting of a writ does not necessarily mean that the Supreme Court disagrees with the decision of the lower court. Granting a writ of certiorari means merely that at least four of the justices have determined that the circumstances described in the petition are sufficient to warrant review by the Court.

    Conversely, the Supreme Court's denial of a petition for a writ of certiorari is sometimes misunderstood as implying that the Supreme Court approves the decision of the lower court. However, as the Court explained in Missouri v. Jenkins, such a denial "imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case[.]" In particular, a denial of a writ of certiorari means that no binding precedent is created by the denial itself, and the lower court's decision is treated as mandatory authority only within the geographical (or in the case of the Federal Circuit, subject-specific) jurisdiction of that court. The reasons for why a denial of certiorari cannot be treated as implicit approval were set forth in Maryland v. Baltimore Radio Show, Inc. (1950), in which the Court explained the many rationales which could underlie the denial of a writ which have nothing to do with the merits of the case..."

  • BYODB||


    United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars in United States Currency


    - Citizen
    "Look, Officer, I know you just caught me red handed selling heroin but I swear that I have $17900 at home in a safe that was really to blame for this crime. The money made me do it!"


    -Officer
    "Well, thanks for your honesty citizen! Just hand that $17900 over to me and you're free to go! We'll see that this criminal money doesn't hurt anyone ever again!"


    Definitely not a bribe, you see, because money can commit crimes. It's a civil matter for...reasons...but seriously guys...seriously...money can deal drugs and kill people on it's own.


    -The Russian United States Government

  • Warren||

    I want to live in a country where literacy is a prerequisite to becoming a judge. Most especially a jurist must be able to read the Constitution of the United States, the forth amendment in particular, before being appointed to the SCOTUS.

  • Johnimo||

    I think you'd be very surprised to find how many Americans have never even seen, much less read, a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Thomas O.||

    This was more a case (in the Leonard v. Texas case, actually) of SCOTUS practicing that "judicial restraint" that the conservatives love so much. It's unconstitutional as fuck, but the majority of the people still want it (because DRUGZ KILLING OUR CHILDRUNZ!!!), so FYTW.

  • Dan S.||

    The forth amendment? Who here remembers FORTH? The courts, I'm sure, don't give a FIG about it.

  • Finrod||

    From Beyond The Fringe:

    And what's more, being a miner, as soon as you're too old and tired and ill and sick and stupid to do your job properly, you 'ave to go.
    But the very opposite applies to judges.

  • Kivlor||

    I'm glad to never have been on the receiving end of the fuckery that is asset forfeiture, but my dealings in civil court have really left me thinking that reform is meaningless. I question whether or not any "reform" can actually fix this. The issue is the judges themselves, and their mysterious Judge Logic.

    Having an attorney may mean nothing, because these guys can and do decide whatever they feel like. It's freaking madness, and I often wonder how it is we don't see more impoverished people who get hit by this kind of injustice taking matters into their own hands.

  • Kivlor||

    A personal example of Judge Logic: I had a civil case requesting the court order an accounting of a trust I was the beneficiary to. State law requires all beneficiaries receive a full accounting of transactions, assets, liabilities, etc, at least once a year. The judge determined that only the Trustee has the standing to demand an accounting (The trustee being the person required to provide it!) and dismissed the case, after 3 years of unaccounted business operations.

    I spent 1.5 years and a ridiculous amount of money to be told that. I could appeal, but how much more money, how much more time, energy, rage...?

    Imagine being some poor schlubb on the receiving end of this kind of fuckery. Unable to afford a lawyer. Or finding out it never mattered anyways because the Judge can and will just say "Meh, fuck the law. Fuck case law. Fuck you. Case closed."

  • Johnimo||

    Justice Thomas is to be commended for his stand on this issue. Civil Asset Forfeiture is the stuff revolutions are (eventually) made of. This shit has to stop now.

    A good place to start ending this would be by legalizing ALL drugs and get rid of the criminal DEA drug enforcement operations throughout this country. It's fine to make it illegal to drive and operate heavy equipment under the influence of drugs, and I'm all for that, but the DEA has become like the Gestapo. They're doing more harm than good, by quite a margin.

  • Enemy of the State||

    No standing...to get your own stuff back? Whatta government!

  • John B. Egan||

    Who knew Thomas actually ever work up long enough to make a statement. he is absolutely correct. Forfeiture is simply unConstitutional criminal actions on the part of our police departments and should be done away with.

  • Whorton||

    An infuriating issue to be sure. The abuses are rampant.

    With Federal judges ruling that such individuals (whom are never charged with a crime) "have no standing," What is to stop the police from stopping armored cars and seizing whatever funds they find, after all who ever it belongs to has "no standing"

    For that matter, why not just seize private homes, cars, whatever the feel they want?

    The bonds for an amount equal to the amount seized or more accomplish nothing but ensure most people will not contest the issue. Now we have a federal judiciary who feel those robbed of their money by the sheriff, have no STANDING?

  • p3orion||

    THIS is why Jeff Sessions is unfit to be Attorney General, his support for civil asset forfeiture, not some tin-foil hat Russian collusion delusion.

  • LibertarianJRT||

    *nods* i like your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • rudehost||

    Notice this issue doesn't excite conservatives or progressives. Conservatives are too busy fellating law enforcement to care and progressives are too busy fellating the state in general. I think the progressive indifference to this is more telling. Conservatives proudly proclaim they are all about supporting law enforcement so no surprise there. Progressives claim they champion the poor, the little guy, and minorities all of whom are the primary victims here. When those groups find themselves abused by the state progressives flat out don't care. Their love of central authority is their first last and only love. Poor people are merely useful for votes. They are the fertilizer progressives use to grow and glorify the all wondrous state - peace be upon it.

  • Africanis||

    Progressives want the right to all your possessions, not just those seized by the police. You have the right to whatever is left after they have seized your profit to fund their utopia. Remember Clinton telling her cabal that she would seize the windfall profits of corporations to give her lot free stuff! Conservatives do not service law enforcement on their knees, they just know the law needs encouragement as certain idiots paint them murderers looking for their next black victim. It isn't easy doing that job while the very people who you protect, spit and curse at you. There are bad cops just as there are in any profession. Civil forfeiture is out of control though and it is imperative they are reigned in as it seems many people have been robbed outright.

  • Agnes||

    I envision many secret apartments leased by law enforcement officials that very much resemble Tom Hanks' apartment in the movie, Big.

  • jbsnc||

    Thomas is a good man. Contrarily, Sessions appears just another big, big, brother government lackey who supports ridiculously harsh prison sentences and encourages increased Civil Asset Forfeiture. Trump hasn't made many mistakes, but Sessions is one.

  • LifeStrategies||

    Who was the "federal district judge" who "ruled that they lacked standing". Such outrageous decisions that they have no standing in the theft of their own money should NOT leave the judge nameless. Naming him as the author of this despicable decision would help avoid such decisions in the future, and help ensure that his peers know about it...

  • Simon Prophet||

    Civil asset forfeiture more probably can only exist in a country that is being governed by gangsters. It baffles the mind of reasonable people that anyone can accept and promote civil asset forfeiture as being the right thing to do. http://www.simonprophet.com/wh.....icture.htm

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