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U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear "Innocent Owner" Forfeiture Case


September 1995

On June 5, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear an "innocent owner" forfeiture case that might have an impact on many drug forfeiture cases (57 CrL 3066; for more information about the case, see Michigan Ex Rel. Wayne County v. Bennis, 527 N.W.2d 483 (Mich. 1994)).

John Bennis was convicted of gross indecency when police officers observed him pick up a woman and engage in an act of patronizing prostitution in Detroit on October 3, 1988. The court decided that the act was also in violation of the public nuisance law and ordered the forfeiture of Bennis' automobile, which was used to facilitate the commission of the illegal sex act. Michigan's nuisance abatement statute holds that

any building, vehicle, boat, aircraft, or place used for the purpose of lewdness ... or used for the unlawful manufacture, transporting, [or] sale ... of any controlled substance ... is declared a nuisance. ... Any person or his or her servant, agent, or employee who owns, leases, conducts, or maintains any building, vehicle, or place used for any of the purposes or acts set forth in this section is guilty of a nuisance (M.C.L. §600.3801, M.C.A. §27A.3801).

The car was co-owned by Bennis' wife, Tina Bennis. She claimed at the forfeiture hearing that she had no knowledge of her husband's illegal actions and thus would qualify as an innocent owner of the car. The trial judge did not agree and ordered the forfeiture of the car.

The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that the government was required to prove that Tina Bennis knew that John Bennis used the vehicle to commit the act of gross indecency to sustain the forfeiture. The Supreme Court of Michigan reversed the Court of Appeals in December of 1994 and ordered the forfeiture of the car. It found that U.S. Supreme Court rulings indicate that forfeiture can occur even if one of the owners had no knowledge of the illegal act (citing Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974) and Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U.S. 465 (1926)).

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Michael Cavanagh wrote that courts have the responsibility to make provisions for innocent owners in the case of forfeited property. In the case of Tina Bennis, the court can and should "tailor a remedy to protect her property interest" by splitting a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the car with Tina Bennis or allowing her to purchase full interest in the car.

There have been a number of cases in the last several years seeking to clarify issues of the innocent owner defense in civil forfeiture drug cases. The defense was used successfully in U.S. v. One Rolls Royce (No. 93-1417, 63 USLW2354 (3rd Cir. 1994); "Third Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Innocent Owner Defense," NewsBriefs, January 1995) and U.S. v. Parcel of Land, 92 Buena Vista Ave. (113 S.Ct. 1126 (1993)). Innocent owner defenses have failed in U.S. v. Two Parcels of Property Located at 19 and 255 Castel Street, New Haven, Conn. (Gonzalez) (Nos. 93-6109 etc. (2nd Cir. 1994); 55 CrL 1433; "Recent Rulings on Forfeiture," NewsBriefs, September-October 1994, p. 2) and U.S. v. One Parcel of Real Estate Located at 6640 S.W. 48th Street, Miami, Fla. (Larraz) (No. 93-5139, 41 F.3d 1448 (11th Cir. 1995); 56 CrL 1365).

The case will be argued next fall.