The Case for Forfeiture

The modern legal basis for civil forfeiture is rooted in one particular court case which came out of Michigan. In the 1996 case Bennis v. Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that neither the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment nor the due process clause of the 14th Amendment were violated by civil forfeiture. The court additionally found that the state did not have to prove that an innocent property owner consented or even knew about their property being associated with a crime in order for the state to have the power to take it.[*]

In Bennis, a married couple from Royal Oak had joint ownership of a vehicle. The husband, John Bennis, was arrested for engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute while in the car. The state seized and subjected the car to forfeiture, but Tina Bennis, John’s spouse, sued the state to retrieve her right to half of the vehicle’s value.

The Supreme Court held that a property owner, even if completely unaware that the asset was involved in illegal activity, cannot use an “innocent owner defense” and has no constitutional right to a judicial process to recover the property.[25] In other words, as long as the government can prove the “guilt” of the property, the U.S. Constitution does not protect innocent owners of such property from having their assets forfeited.

Law enforcement agencies often attempt to justify forfeiture by stating that it allows them to more effectively fight crime and saves taxpayer money. For example, Michigan State Police director Col. Kriste Etue has said:

Michigan’s asset forfeiture program saves taxpayers money and deprives drug criminals of cash and property obtained through illegal activity. Michigan’s law enforcement community has done an outstanding job of stripping drug dealers of illicit gain and utilizing those proceeds to expand and enhance drug enforcement efforts to protect our citizens.[26]

Although Col. Etue’s statement above may be true with respect to some criminals who deal in large amounts of cash and valuable property, civil forfeiture lacks the legal protections necessary to make sure that innocent people are not stripped of their property without due process of law.

[*] Bennis v. Michigan, 517 U.S. 1163 (1996). It should be noted, however, that some states, including Michigan, statutorily require the state to prove that a property owner cannot use the “innocent owner defense” before property may be forfeited. Marian R. Williams et al., “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” (Institute for Justice, March 2010), 23,; MCL § 600.4705(1).