Civil Asset Forfeiture —
The End of the Rule of Law
Published in the column on Criminal Law
in the New York Times, July 3, 1996, page A20

As usual, the Federal Government's policies on narcotics prosecutions produced important rulings. Most significantly, the Court ruled 8 to 1 that it did not violate the constitutional protection against double jeopardy for the Government to use both the criminal law to prosecute someone and the law of civil forfeiture to seize the defendant's property.

This double-barreled strategy, a cornerstone of the Government's war on drugs, does not amount to an impermissible double punishment for a single offense, Chief Justice Rehnquist said in the majority opinion, because civil forfeiture is not a punishment. The decision, United States v. Ursery, No. 95-345, cut back substantially on recent Supreme Court decisions that had placed constitutional constraints on the Government's use of civil forfeiture proceedings. Justice Stevens dissented.

The Government also won a second forfeiture case. The Court ruled 5 to 4 that there was no constitutional barrier against the Government seizing property that was used to commit a crime, even the property of an 'innocent owner' who had no connection with the criminal activity. The decision, by Chief Justice Rehnquist, rejected a claim to compensation by a Michigan woman whose half-interest in the family car was forfeited under a state nuisance statute after her husband used it to solicit a prostitute.

[Boldface added]