Justice Clarence Thomas yesterday signalled that the abusive practice of civil asset forfeiture is ripe for expanded constitutional scrutiny.
The case is Lisa Olivia Leonard v. Texas. James Leonard (the petitioner’s son) was stopped by police for a traffic infraction in 2013 “along a known drug corridor.” Police searched Mr. Leonard’s vehicle and discovered a safe containing $201,100 and the bill of sale for a home. Arguing that the money was either proceeds from a drug sale or going to be used in such a sale, the state initiated forfeiture proceedings and took the money. The safe actually belonged to James’ mother Lisa, who brought suit to protect her property from the government seizure.
The Supreme Court denied certiorari for procedural reasons, but Justice Thomas had some harsh words for civil forfeiture anyway, and suggested that it’s time for the Supreme Court to take another look at the practice:
Civil proceedings often lack certain procedural protections that accompany criminal proceedings, such as the right to a jury trial and a heightened standard of proof.
Partially as a result of this distinct legal regime, civil forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and highly profitable. And because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture.
This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well‐chronicled abuses…
Justice Thomas also noted the disparate impact these types of abuses have on the poorest and most vulnerable communities:
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.
The opinion goes on to explain that while the court has historically upheld the constitutionality of civil forfeiture, the modern practice of forfeiture has strayed far from its narrow historical use and purpose:
I am skeptical that this historical practice is capable of sustaining, as a constitutional matter, the contours of modern practice, for two reasons.
First, historical forfeiture laws were narrower in most respects than modern ones. Most obviously, they were limited to a few specific subject matters, such as customs and piracy. Proceeding in rem in those cases was often justified by necessity, because the party responsible for the crime was frequently located overseas and thus beyond the personal jurisdiction of the United States courts. These laws were also narrower with respect to the type of property they encompassed. For example, they typically covered only the instrumentalities of the crime (such as the vessel used to transport the goods), not the derivative proceeds of the crime (such as property purchased with money from the sale of the illegal goods).
Second, it is unclear whether courts historically permitted forfeiture actions to proceed civilly in all respects. Some of this Court’s early cases suggested that forfeiture actions were in the nature of criminal proceedings…
Lastly, while agreeing with the Court’s refusal to hear the case for procedural reasons, Justice Thomas nonetheless expressed his interest in taking another look at civil forfeiture:
Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.
In his opinion, Justice Thomas refers to the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit survey of forfeiture laws around the country, and also to Sarah Stillman’s expose Taken, documenting several instances of forfeiture abuse. Both of those sources are worth reading for a better idea of just how bad the incentives of civil forfeiture are and the abuses that have resulted.
It’s heartening to have a Supreme Court Justice so squarely acknowledge and raise questions about a predatory government practice that has proceeded unchecked for so long.
One of the most common questions I receive when I talk about civil asset forfeiture is “why does the Supreme Court allow this?” My answer has always been “because these laws predate the country and the court has never seen fit to re‐examine them.”
This opinion is a clear signal that at least one member of the Supreme Court is ready to take a fresh and skeptical look.