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Supreme Court Will Review Civil Forfeiture in Drug Crimes


February 1993

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed January 15 that it would hear a case likely to have significant ramifications for use of forfeiture in drug crimes (Lyle Denniston, "Court to Consider Constitutionality of Major Forfeitures for Minor Crimes," Drug Enforcement Report, 1/25/93, p. 1). The court will hear the case by the end of its current term ending in July.

The case, Austin v. U.S., involved federal seizure of the home and entire business of Richard Austin of South Dakota in a civil proceeding subsequent to Austin's guilty plea to a single count of cocaine possession with intent to distribute, which resulted in a seven-year sentence. The plea stemmed from the one-time sale of about two grams of cocaine by Austin to an undercover state agent in 1990.

After the plea, the federal government seized Austin's home and business, since the cocaine had been either sold or stored at the two locations. In May 1992, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Minneapolis reluctantly upheld the forfeiture, saying it was bound by precedent, but expressed concern over sweeping federal forfeiture power in minor single-transaction drug cases.