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Supreme Court Further Limits Scope of Asset Seizure in Major Ruling


July 1993

In the third decision this session restraining the Government seizure of assets of suspects and criminals, the United States Supreme Court ruled that asset seizure was punitive and hence constrained by the Eighth Amendment, requiring that the punishment fit the crime (No byline, "Asset Seizures Are Punitive And Thus Must Fit The Crime," Law Enforcement News, 6/30/93, p. 7; Stephen Labaton, "Justices Restrict Ability To Seize Suspects' Goods," New York Times, 6/29/93, A1).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits "excessive fines," requiring punishment be proportionate to an offense. In its losing argument in Austin v. United States, No. 92-6073, the Justice Department had argued that the Eighth Amendment did not apply to civil forfeiture, contending such forfeiture was "remedial" rather than punitive, and that therefore the guilt or innocence of the property owner was "constitutionally irrelevant."

In February, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a New Jersey woman to use a statutory "innocent owner" defense against the Government's efforts to seize her home in United States v. A Parcel of Land, known as 92 Buena Vista Avenue, No. 91-781 (See NewsBriefs March 1993 p. 3).

In this case, Richard Lyle Austin of North Dakota lost his car-repair business and mobile home after selling two grams of cocaine to a narcotics agent. Austin claimed that the seizure violated the "excessive fines" clause of the Eighth Amendment.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Harry Blackmun held that the Eighth Amendment applies to both civil and criminal proceedings, and that the intention of forfeiture law was to punish the property owner. Blackmun observed that the courts have generally employed the legal fiction of holding the property rather than the individual as wrongdoer, thus imposing a much greater procedural burden on property owners in which the property owner's guilt becomes irrelevant.