In a Philadelphia suburb last year, cops seized the home of a couple who had never been charged with a crime. Their son had allegedly dealt heroin out of the house, and cops said the home could be seized because it was tied to illegal activities.
Markela and Chris Sourovelis — who owned the house — said they had no knowledge of their son’s alleged drug deals, as CNN reported. However, as unbelievable as it sounds, the Supreme Court has ruled it’s Constitutional for the government to take away your property even if you’re innocent.
Under federal and state laws known as civil forfeiture, police can seize cash or property if they suspect it’s tied to an illegal activity even if the property owner isn’t charged with a crime. On its face, this practice seems like an obvious violation of the Fifth Amendment’s stipulation that you can’t “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
The Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. That court has issued a number of rulings upholding civil forfeiture, including one in 1996 that said seizure of an innocent person’s property didn’t violate due process. In that case, a Michigan woman named Tina Bennis fought the seizure of her car after her husband was caught having sex with a prostitute in it.
For her part, Bennis argued she had no clue her husband would use the car for the illegal tryst. The high court ruled that didn’t matter, citing the following case law:
It has long been settled that statutory forfeitures of property entrusted by the innocent owner or lienor to another who uses it in violation of the revenue laws of the United States is not a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
In its 1996 decision, the high court pointed to a bizarre line of reasoning it made in its first-ever decision on civil forfeiture handed down back in 1827. That case involved the government’s attempt to seize a ship used for piracy. When the owner of the ship claimed it couldn’t be forfeited until he’d been convicted of a crime, the Supreme Court had this to say:
The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing.
While it sounds odd that the government would want to punish “the thing,” civil forfeiture cases today still reflect that line of reasoning. When the government attempts to seize property these days, it files a civil complaint against the property or cash. This leads to funny-sounding lawsuits, like “US v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins.” But for people whose property or cash is seized, forfeiture can be seriously disruptive.
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