The Supreme Court justices battered lawyers Wednesday with questions about Tina Bennis and the seizure of her half-interest in a car used by her husband for oral sex with a prostitute.
The husband, John Bennis, was convicted of gross indecency after his arrest in a vice-ridden Detroit neighborhood in 1988.
The car was confiscated and sold, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Larry L. Roberts explained, because prostitution was rampant in the area and the 11-year-old Pontiac was “the container … of the conduct of Mr. Bennis and the prostitute.”
Roberts insisted that county authorities acted properly under the government’s power to protect public health, safety and morals. But Bennis’ lawyer, Stefan Herpel, argued that the government had no right to punish her when she had done nothing wrong.
The Supreme Court’s answer, expected sometime next spring, may have a major impact on the widespread use of forfeiture laws by federal and state law enforcement officials, especially in their war on drugs.
The Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of forfeiture laws in recent cases. In the case of Bennis vs. Michigan, it confronts the question of whether the government may seize the property of an owner who did nothing wrong, either intentionally or carelessly.
Several justices asked what an innocent owner, such as Tina Bennis, should be required to do to avoid forfeiture.
“Should she call the police and say, ‘My husband is doing bad things’?” Justice David Souter asked.
Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether forfeiture would have been justified “if she had known he was a scoundrel.”
Herpel argued that innocent owners shouldn’t lose their property unless they negligently entrusted it to someone else. Richard Seamon, representing the Justice Department, said innocent owners should be required to show they took “all reasonable steps” to avoid illegal use of their property.
When the county prosecutor said a rental car company wasn’t subject to forfeiture of a rented car because it had no control over its use, Justice Souter zeroed in.
How is the innocent wife’s situation any different when she had no control, either? Souter inquired.
The prosecutor referred vaguely to a Michigan court opinion, provoking Scalia to snap: “That doesn’t make any sense, Mr. Roberts.”