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United States v. Ursery

Various Items, Emerald Cut Stones, And 89 Firearms

The Court ruled by an 8-1 vote that in rem civil forfeiture proceedings were neither "punishment" nor criminal in nature; hence the seizure of property, combined with prison sentences, did not constitute double jeopardy. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, noted that federal authorities had Congress's authorization to conduct parallel civil and criminal actions, a history that went back at least to The Palmyra (1827). Citing cases such as Various Items of Personal Property v. United States (1931), One Lot Emerald Cut Stones v. United States (1972), and United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms (1984), Rehnquist observed that the Double Jeopardy Clause did not apply to forfeiture because it did not impose "punishment." Most recently, in 89 Firearms, the Court had applied a two-part test in considering whether a forfeiture was barred by prior criminal proceedings. It asked itself first "whether Congress intended the particular forfeiture to be a remedial civil sanction or a criminal penalty"; and second "whether the forfeiture proceedings are so punitive in fact as to establish that they may not legitimately be viewed as civil in nature," regardless of Congress's intent. If the action was a civil sanction that could not be judged "punitive," then it did not constitute double jeopardy.

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that in analysis of various of the above-mentioned cases, "the conclusion was the same in each case: in rem civil forfeiture is a remedial civil sanction, distinct from potentially punitive in personam civil penalties such as fines . . . " In personam penalties punish the person; in rem penalties "punish" the property, which is no punishment at all. Rather, it is a remedial action, or one aimed at remedying a situation. The courts of appeals, Rehnquist wrote, had misunderstood the Supreme Court's rulings in United States v. Halper (1989), Austin v. United States (1993), and Department of Revenue of Montana v. Kurth Ranch (1994). They read them to imply that civil forfeitures did constitute double jeopardy when combined with imprisonment. "It would have been remarkable," he wrote, "for the Court both to have held unconstitutional a well-established practice, and to have overruled a long line of precedent, without having even suggested that it was doing so." Those cases were different, involving respectively in personam civil penalties, civil forfeitures, and a punitive state tax on marijuana. Halper and Kurth Ranch at least involved the Double Jeopardy Clause, and Austin addressed civil forfeitures under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, but only the present case was concerned with in rem civil forfeitures under the Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy Clause. (Austin, to which several justices would refer in concurrence or dissent, involved an attempt by the federal government to seize a mobile home and auto body shop from a man convicted of selling two grams of cocaine. The Court overruled the lower court on the grounds that the Eighth Amendment limited federal power to seize assets.)

Finally, the chief justice applied the 89 Firearms test to the present case. First, Sections 881 and 981, he wrote, had clearly been intended by Congress to serve civil functions. And second, there was little evidence to suggest that the forfeiture actions were punitive enough to earn them the label of criminal, rather than civil, proceedings. Austin, Halper, and Kurth Ranch did not have as much bearing on the present case as the petitioners had hoped. However, the statutes in question in the present case were not substantially different from those upheld in Various Items, Emerald Cut Stones, and 89 Firearms. Four other factors gave further support to the understanding of 881 and 981 as non-punitive. First, in rem civil forfeiture had not been historically viewed as punishment. Second, the government was not required by the statute to demonstrate scienter (criminal intent), which further distinguished the statutes from criminal ones. Third, the seizure could serve civil goals in addition to its criminal deterrent aims. And fourth, the fact that 881 and 981 were "tied to criminal activity is insufficient in itself to render them punitive."

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentUnited States v. Ursery - Significance, Guy Ursery Grows His Own, Various Items, Emerald Cut Stones, And 89 Firearms