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Supreme Court restricts civil forfeiture

  • Birdsall Obear

Wisconsin and other states have civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement to seize cash, vehicles and other private property that may have been used in crimes, particularly drug offenses. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, unanimously ruled that the Constitution restricts the ability of states and towns to take property involved in crimes.

This decision can help a drug charges defense law firm fight this practice.

A criminal conviction or even charges are not required for civil forfeiture. Law enforcement must only submit proof that the property was used in a crime. To seek return of their property, owners must prove that it was not used in a crime or was used without their knowledge. Investigations across the nation revealed many incidents where the property seized was disproportionate to the crime, taken from innocent citizens or targeted by authorities.

This case involved a minor drug offender in Indiana who pled guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest, five years of probation and payment of $1,200 in fees and fines. Indiana law enforcement also seized his $42,000 Land Rover, which was purchased with the proceeds of his father's life insurance policy. The state claimed that it was used to commit the crime.

The Court decided this case earlier this month and ruled that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines is not limited to the federal government. Through the Fourteenth Amendment, this constitutional restriction applies to the states. The Court did not address whether the seizure of the Land Rover was an excessive fine and left that issue to the lower court. However, it suggested that the penalty was disproportionate to the crime and pointed out that the vehicle was worth over four times the maximum $10,000 fine that could have been imposed for this conviction.

The Court also said that all 50 states have constitutions that prohibit excessive fines directly or which require proportionality. However, the Court's decision may have an impact on how state courts interpret these provisions.

The defense attorney for the defendant said that law enforcement will continue to utilize civil forfeitures unless legislatures change these laws. An attorney can help defendants and property owners fight civil forfeiture in court.

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