Seizures and the court Punishing the innocent: Supreme Court upholds property seizure involved in crime.

March 10, 1996

TINA BENNIS, the Michigan woman who lost her car after her husband was arrested in it with a prostitute, expected the Supreme Court to sympathize with her plight. But she was sorely disappointed. The court ruled 5-4 against her last week. Her disappointment was matched by the surprise of many observers who expected the continuation of a recent trend of the court moving toward placing constitutional limits on the state's powers to confiscate property used in the commission of a crime.

The Bennis ruling stopped that movement, leaving a troubling argument to be continued by local legislatures. This case shows how laws aimed at punishing and deterring crime can hurt innocent people -- and defy logic.

Ms. Bennis and her husband had paid $600 for the 1977 Pontiac her husband was driving when he picked up a prostitute in Detroit in 1988 and drove to a residential neighborhood where he was charged with committing an indecent act in the car's front seat. In an effort to crack down on nuisance crimes, the county not only convicted Mr. Bennis, fined him $250 and required him to perform community service, but ordered forfeiture of the car in which he committed the offense. Tina Bennis, innocent of the crime and of knowledge it would occur, lost not only her car but also her investment. After paying court costs, a judge said, there was too little left to give her with any compensation.

In a strong dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the court was wrong to uphold the state court's ruling against Ms. Bennis. Noting the difference between early forfeiture cases in which the property seized was far more essential to the commission of the crime than was the '77 Pontiac to the act of prostitution, he argued that the penalty was far out of line with the offense. "While our historical cases establish the propriety of seizing a freighter when its entire cargo consists of smuggled goods," he wrote, "none of them would justify the confiscation of an ocean liner just because one of its passengers sinned while on board."

We agree with Justice Stevens. Clearly, legislatures now need to revisit this question.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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