High court clarifies forfeit law Prosecutors given wider authority to seize property

No 'double jeopardy'

Ruling retreats from string of decisions

Stevens dissents

June 25, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave prosecutors wide new authority yesterday to use a double-barreled attack on crime: seizing property used illegally, and pursuing criminal charges separately.

The decision sought to bring some order out of a string of conflicting recent rulings on government seizure of property linked to crime.

Over one justice's dissent, the court ruled that it generally is not unconstitutional to take property that has been used in crimes, even when the seizure is preceded or followed by a criminal case against the owner or user.

That is not a form of dual punishment for the same crime, the court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. The Constitution's ban on "double jeopardy" forbids multiple punishment for the same crime.

The decision marked the first time the court has upheld the forfeiture of someone's home because of its link to crime. It appeared to cut back significantly on the constitutional protection the court had seemed to provide in three rulings dating to 1989.

In those decisions, the court had appeared to pare down the authority of prosecutors at all government levels to rely on property forfeitures -- an increasingly popular method for cracking down on drug and money-laundering crimes.

The states, including Maryland, are using property forfeiture laws of their own to crack down more vigorously on drug crimes. Maryland joined 40 other states and Puerto Rico in supporting the Justice Department appeals that led to yesterday's ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens, yesterday's dissenter, said the new ruling "shows a stunning disregard" for precedents.

Rehnquist, in an opinion speaking for six justices, reinterpreted the recent rulings and concluded that, as a rule, government seizure of property does not amount to punishment for crime. Such seizure is a form of remedy for misuse of property, and it forces criminals to give up "the fruits of illegal conduct," the main opinion said.

The decision came in two cases in which targets of property seizures claimed violations of the double jeopardy clause in the Constitution's Fifth Amendment.

In one, the court upheld the federal seizure of a farmhouse near Perry, Mich., that had been used to process and distribute marijuana. Later, the owner was charged with manufacturing marijuana, was convicted and received a 63-month prison sentence.

In the second, the court upheld the seizure of $413,000 in four bank accounts, $123,000 in cash, a helicopter, two boats, an airplane, silver bars and 11 automobiles, all belonging to two ranchers and their company. Earlier, the government had won convictions for illegal drug manufacture and money-laundering, and then moved to seize the property linked to those crimes.

Joining in the decision in favor of those seizures were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas.

Affirmative action

The court indicated that it may act this week on a major new test case that threatens to scuttle affirmative action programs used in college admissions.

Texas, with the support of the Clinton administration and a number of other states, including Maryland, is challenging a lower-court ruling that barred the University of Texas Law School from using race in its admissions selections.

The justices said they would examine that appeal when they consider a separate plea by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to join in the case to defend affirmative action.

Prisoners' rights

In a sharply worded ruling denouncing prison inmates who actively use prison libraries and law books to prepare lawsuits, the court reduced significantly the constitutional protection it had given prisoners in a 1977 ruling.

That decision, the court said, "does not guarantee inmates the wherewithal to transform themselves into litigating engines." All they are guaranteed, Scalia wrote, are minimum tools for pursuing "non-frivolous" challenges to their convictions, sentences and prison conditions.

With the full or partial support of all justices but Stevens, the court struck down a federal judge's sweeping order controlling the way Arizona must operate its prison libraries and legal-aid programs.

Black districts

The court threw out three constitutional challenges -- including one by the U.S. government -- to a court-ordered redistricting plan for Louisiana's congressional delegation. That plan reduced from two to one the number of black-dominated districts in the state, thus undercutting the political base of a black incumbent, Democratic Rep. Cleo Fields.

That court-drawn plan has since been ratified by the state legislature; the court ruled yesterday that this made the challenges legally dead.

Punitive damages

Splitting 5-4, the court gave states new assurances that their caps on punitive-damages verdicts will be carried out not only in state-court lawsuits but also in some suits tried in federal courts.

The ruling applies to cases, such as defective-product lawsuits, that are tried in federal court even though they are based on state laws, because the parties involved are from different states. When a federal court handles such a case, it must ordinarily apply state, not federal, law.

Yesterday, the court said this holds true also for limits on damages awards. There should not be a wide gap, the court said, between the amount one could receive from a jury in a state court and in a federal court, just because the lawsuit winds up in federal court.

That ruling sent back to federal court in New York a lawsuit in which a federal jury awarded William Gasperini, a CBS radio correspondent, $450,000 for the loss of photographic slides he had made in Central America and lent out for use in a documentary.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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