The Supreme Court has placed new limits on criminal asset forfeiture and the government’s ability to seize property from people convicted of drug crimes in a unanimous 8-0 ruling on Monday.
The case surrounded Terry Honeycutt, a Tennessee man convicted for selling iodine water purification filters to methamphetamine producers. Honeycutt is said to have helped to sell over 20,000 filters from his brother’s hardware store; prosecutors argue both brothers knew iodine was used to produce the illicit substance.
Honeycutt’s brother forfeited $200,000 out of $270,000 in profits after pleading guilty. The government attempted to get Honeycutt to hand over the remaining $70,000, but he said he didn’t see any profits from the scheme, and is therefore not responsible.
While a federal appeals court ruled against Honeycutt, concluding that both brothers bore full responsibility for the total sum of money, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her opinion for the high court, said forfeiture laws are “limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of a crime.”
“Congress did not authorize the government to confiscate substitute property from other defendants or coconspirators,” Sotomayor’s opinion said. “It authorized the government to confiscate assets only from the defendant who initially acquired the property and who bears responsibility for its dissipation.”
Former federal prosecutor John Marti said the ruling was the latest effort by the court to attempt to put limits on perceived overreaching prosecutors.
“In short, federal criminal statutes and forfeiture statutes are not blank checks for prosecutors,” Marti said.
In April, the court ruled 7-1 that Colorado cannot hold onto money derived from fines, court fees and other money extracted from defendants if their convictions are overturned, another small step forward in reigning in the abuse of asset forfeiture statutes.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in the majority opinion on that case that “Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.”
While Honeycutt v. United States didn’t constitute a major victory, it helps to put limits on whether the government can make defendants hand over criminal profits from which they haven’t benefited, or even personally seen.
Civil asset forfeiture, however, is perhaps the more egregious practice, where government effectively steals assets without any criminal conviction whatsoever. In addition to criminal asset forfeiture, reform is needed here as well.
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Contributed by Will Porter of The Daily Sheeple.