US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Slams Civil Forfeiture Practices

In a denial of certeriori today in Lisa Oliva Leonard v. Texas, No. 16-122, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:
This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use— has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. Stillman, Taken, The New Yorker, Aug. 12 & 19, 2013, pp. 54–56. In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. Id., at 49. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. Id., at 51. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up. Ibid. 
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Id., at 53–54; Sallah, O’Harrow, & Rich, Stop and Seize, Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2014, pp. A1, A10. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home....
In the absence of this historical practice, the Constitution presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation. See Bennis, supra, at 454 (THOMAS, J., concurring) (“One unaware of the history of forfeiture laws and 200 years of this Court’s precedent regarding such laws might well assume that such a scheme is lawless—a violation of due process”). 
I am skeptical that this historical practice is capable of sustaining, as a constitutional matter, the contours of modern practice, for two reasons. First, historical forfeiture laws were narrower in most respects than modern ones. Cf. James Daniel Good, 510 U. S., at 85 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (noting that “ambitious modern statutes and prosecutorial practices have all but detached themselves from the ancient notion of civil forfeiture”). Most obviously, they were limited to a few specific subject matters, such as customs and piracy. Proceeding in rem in those cases was often justified by necessity, because the party responsible for the crime was frequently located overseas and thus beyond the personal jurisdiction of United States courts. See Herpel, Toward a Constitutional Kleptocracy: Civil Forfeiture in America, 96 Mich. L. Rev. 1910, 1918– 1920 (1998); see also id., at 1925–1926 (arguing that founding era precedents do not support the use of forfeiture against purely domestic offenses where the owner is plainly within the personal jurisdiction of both state and federal courts). These laws were also narrower with respect to the type of property they encompassed. For example, they typically covered only the instrumentalities of the crime (such as the vessel used to transport the goods), not the derivative proceeds of the crime (such as property purchased with money from the sale of the illegal goods). See Rumson, supra, at 121–122, 125 (plurality opinion) (Forfeiture of criminal proceeds is a modern innovation). Second, it is unclear whether courts historically permit-ted forfeiture actions to proceed civilly in all respects. 
Some of this Court’s early cases suggested that forfeiture actions were in the nature of criminal proceedings. See, e.g., Boyd v. United States, 116 U. S. 616, 633–634 (1886) (“We are . . . clearly of [the] opinion that proceedings instituted for the purpose of declaring the forfeiture of a man’s property by reason of offenses committed by him, though they may be civil in form, are in their nature criminal”); but see R. Waples, Treatise on Proceedings In Rem 29–30 (1882) (collecting contrary authorities). Whether forfeiture is characterized as civil or criminal carries important implications for a variety of procedural protections, including the right to a jury trial and the proper standard of proof. Indeed, as relevant in this case, there is some evidence that the government was historically required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. See United States v. Brig Burdett, 9 Pet. 682, 690 (1835) (“The object of the prosecution against the Burdett is to enforce a forfeiture of the vessel, and all that pertains to it, for a violation of a revenue law. This prosecution then is a highly penal one, and the penalty should not be inflicted, unless the infractions of the law shall be established beyond reasonable doubt”). 

 Thanks to AFR research director Scott Meiner for the tip.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.