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Leonard v. Texas

United States Supreme Court

March 6, 2017

580 U.S. ____ (2017)
v.
TEXAS

         ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, NINTH DISTRICT

         The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

         Statement of JUSTICE THOMAS respecting the denial of certiorari.

         This petition asks an important question: whether modern civil-forfeiture statutes can be squared with the Due Process Clause and our Nation's history.

         I

         Early in the morning on April 1, 2013, a police officer stopped James Leonard for a traffic infraction along a known drug corridor. During a search of the vehicle, the officer found a safe in the trunk. Leonard and his passenger, Nicosa Kane, gave conflicting stories about the contents of the safe, with Leonard at one point indicating that it belonged to his mother, who is the petitioner here. The officer obtained a search warrant and discovered that the safe contained $201, 100 and a bill of sale for a Pennsylvania home.

         The State initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against the $201, 100 on the ground that it was substantially connected to criminal activity, namely, narcotics sales. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Art. 59.01 (Vernon Cum. Supp. 2016). The trial court issued a forfeiture order, and petitioner appealed. Citing the suspicious circumstances of the stop and the contradictory stories provided by Leonard and Kane, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's conclusion that the government had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the money was either the proceeds of a drug sale or intended to be used in such a sale. It also affirmed the trial court's rejection of petitioner's innocent-owner defense. Petitioner had asserted that the money was not related to a drug sale at all, but was instead from a home she had recently sold in Pennsylvania. The court deemed this testimony insufficient to establish that she was in fact an innocent owner.

         Petitioner now challenges the constitutionality of the procedures used to adjudicate the seizure of her property. In particular, she argues that the Due Process Clause required the State to carry its burden by clear and convincing evidence rather than by a preponderance of the evidence.

         II

         Modern civil forfeiture statutes are plainly designed, at least in part, to punish the owner of property used for criminal purposes. See, e.g., Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 618-619 (1993). When a state wishes to punish one of its citizens, it ordinarily proceeds against the defendant personally (known as "in personam"), and in many cases it must provide the defendant with full criminal procedural protections. Nevertheless, for reasons discussed below, this Court permits prosecutors seeking forfeiture to proceed against the property (known as "in rem") and to do so civilly. See, e.g., United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43, 56-57 (1993). In rem proceedings often enable the government to seize the property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent (though some statutes, including the one here, provide for an innocent-owner defense). 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. See, e.g., Institute for Justice, D. Carpenter, L. Knepper, A. Erickson, & J. McDonald, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 10 (2d ed. Nov. 2015) (Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund took in $4.5 billion in 2014 alone), https://ij.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/ll/policing-for-profit-2nd-edition.pdf (as last visited Feb. 27, 2017). And because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture. Id., at 14 (noting that the Federal Government and many States permit 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds to flow directly to law enforcement); see also App. to Pet. for Cert. B-2 (directing that the money in this case be divided between the "Cleveland Police Department" and the "Liberty County District Attorney's Office").

         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. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. Stillman, Taken, The New Yorker, Aug. 12 & 19, 2013, pp. 54-56. In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. Id., at 49. In another, they seized a black plant worker's car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. Id., at 51. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger's phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up. Ibid.

         These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Id., at 53-54; Sallah, O'Harrow, & Rich, Stop and Seize, Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2014, pp. Al, A10. 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 ...


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