Supreme Court Does Abrupt About-Face on Civil Forfeiture; O.K.'s Easy Seizure of Americans' Homes
U.S. v. Ursery
Washington, DC (June 24, 1996) -- "I've never seen our nation's highest court do such an abrupt about-face," commented National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) President Robert Fogelnest today after reading the Supreme Court's dismaying decision in U.S. v. Ursery. "To anyone concerned about the growth of government power beyond constitutional limits, today may be the single saddest day in many terms," Fogelnest said.
Richard J. Troberman, co-chair of NACDL's Forfeiture Abuse Task Force and author of the defense bar's amicus curiae brief in the case, explained: "The Court's decisions in its last four terms have recognized that taking property from citizens because of alleged wrongdoing is punishment. Today all but one of the Justices are saying 'we never said that.'"
"It's unfortunate to see them abandon their own recent precedents and claim that their hands are tied by civil forfeiture law's ancient roots," Troberman commented. "As Justice Thomas recognized just two terms ago, modern forfeiture law 'differs not only in degree, but in kind,' from its historical ancestors," he added.
"This case is not about whether the government can both prosecute a person and take his property; the government has all the authority it needs to do both, as long as it does them in one criminal proceeding," Troberman explained. "This case is about the government going after people on several different fronts, making them defend themselves in multiple, separate proceedings. The Court today has given the government carte blanche to do just that."
"Only Justice Stevens, in his lone dissent, had the intellectual honesty to point out that Americans' Fifth Amendment protections from government overreaching have deeper roots than war-on-drugs statutes that make it easy for the government to take private property," he added.