March 5, 1996 in Nation/World

Court Expands Police Authority To Seize Property Innocent Owners Can Lose Possessions That Are Linked To Crimes


The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling Monday that provoked outrage from dissenters, bolstered the government’s power to seize property linked to a crime - even if the owner is blameless.

The loser in the case was Tina Bennis, a Michigan mother of five who was unaware that her husband, John, would use their jointly owned car to pick up a prostitute and commit an illegal sex act in the front seat.

Officials confiscated the Bennises’ 11-year-old Pontiac and sold it under a tough Michigan public-nuisance statute.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, cited “a long and unbroken line of cases” since 1827 holding that “an owner’s interest in property may be forfeited” even though the owner did not know it would be put to illegal use.

Those cases, he declared, “are too firmly fixed … to be now displaced.”

In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the seizure of Tina Bennis’ car was blatantly unjust. “Fundamental fairness prohibits the punishment of innocent people,” he said.

Most federal forfeiture laws do furnish protection to innocent owners. Some legal experts said police and prosecutors in some states now may become more aggressive in seizing crime-linked property, even when owners or co-owners did nothing wrong. Others predicted that the ruling would encourage legislative reforms.

Stevens said he feared that Rehnquist’s logic would permit states “to exercise virtually unbridled power to confiscate vast amounts of property where professional criminals have engaged in illegal acts.”

For example, Stevens said, the chief justice’s ruling would “justify the confiscation of an ocean liner just because one of its passengers sinned while on board.”

None of the court’s precedents allows forfeitures to go that far, Rehnquist replied.

Tina Bennis, who lives with her husband and five children in Royal Oak, north of Detroit, could not be reached because, her lawyer said, she was embarrassed by publicity about the case and obtained a private telephone number.

But the lawyer, Stefan B. Herpel of Ann Arbor, Mich., said, “She is stunned by the result and cannot understand how in America a court could hold it is constitutional to punish an innocent person.

“This opinion comes as a tremendous shock to me, too,” Herpel added. “I fear this opinion may unleash a terrible tyranny in this country. Forfeiture has already been abused, and this opinion could lead to even greater abuses.”

Rehnquist’s majority opinion was signed by Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The ruling was a victory for Michigan and the Clinton administration, which joined forces to preserve the full impact of forfeiture laws.

Supreme Court rulings in the 19th century upheld seizures of vessels despite the innocence of the owners. Later, the high court allowed boats and cars to be seized, even though the owners were unaware that their property was used to transport drugs and liquor illegally.

In recent years, though, reports of flagrant abuses led Congress to consider reform legislation and the courts to become more skeptical.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that forfeitures could be challenged as an unconstitutionally excessive fine. On Monday, Justice Stevens accused the court of retreating from that decision.

The confiscation of an entire car “simply because an illicit act took place once in the driver’s seat … is plainly excessive,” said Stevens, who was joined by David Souter and Stephen Breyer. Anthony Kennedy dissented separately.

In other matters Monday, the court:

Ruled that the government need not pay two Agent Orange makers who settled a lawsuit with Vietnam veterans over the defoliant’s alleged effects on health.

Although the government forced contractors to make the chemical in the 1960s under the Defense Production Act, the court in a 6-2 vote found that the government did not promise to reimburse the companies for claims paid to veterans alleging personal injuries.

Veterans alleged in lawsuits beginning in the 1970s that exposure to the dioxin-laden Agent Orange caused cancer and other illnesses. After protracted litigation, the chemical makers agreed in 1984 to settle the case and create a $180 million fund to compensate the veterans and their families.

Rejected the appeal of two former Massachusetts high school students and their parents who objected to an “indecent” program on sex education and AIDS.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that said the 90-minute program did not violate religious freedom or parents’ right to rear their children as they see fit.

The court’s action, taken without comment, ended the two families’ federal court attempt to collect $3.5 million from Chelmsford, Mass., school officials and Suzi Landolphi, owner of the Hot, Sexy and Safer production company.

Lawyers for the two students and their parents said the performance contained “simulations and explicit references to masturbation, ejaculation, breast size, penis size, sexual intercourse, nudity, urination, oralgenital contact, erections, sodomy and testicles, the homosexual lifestyle and premarital heterosexual conduct by minors.”

Turned away the appeal of an Iowa county found to have violated an employee’s religious freedom by firing him for holding prayer meetings at work.

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