WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has weakened one of the government's weapons in the war on drugs, ruling that it cannot confiscate property bought by an innocent person who is given suspected drug-trafficking profits as a gift.
The 6-3 ruling yesterday came in the case of a New Jersey woman who bought a house with money her former boyfriend gave her. The government tried to seize the house in 1989 but was blocked by an appeals court.
The Supreme Court ruled that the woman was entitled to a hearing on her claim that she was an "innocent owner" who did not know the money might have come from illegal drug sales.
The ruling also curbed authorities' broad powers to seize cars and other property they believe was purchased with tainted money.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined in dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Byron White, said the ruling "rips out the most effective enforcement provisions in all of the drug-forfeiture laws."
The law, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, allows the government to confiscate property after showing only probable cause to believe it is connected to illegal drug activity. No criminal conviction against people connected with the property is needed to bring a forfeiture suit.
Although the law allows innocent property owners to show they did not know there was a drug connection, the government had argued that this defense did not apply to individuals given gifts of cash or property by suspected drug dealers.
The Justice Department had argued that the government's claim to gift property bought with illegal drug money always trumps other claims because the cash was forfeitable the minute the narcotics deal took place. The court rejected the argument.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the main opinion for a splintered majority, said the government cannot take over suspect gift property until it has won a court ruling that drug
profits were involved in the purchase. The person who received the gift, Justice Stevens said, can defend against a forfeiture action by showing that he or she did not know the money was tainted.
The court was not swayed by Justice Department arguments that such a ruling would enable drug dealers to hide money by giving it to unknowing friends and relatives. The three dissenting justices said the court had left "the centerpiece of the nation's drug enforcement laws in quite a mess."
Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett, who heads the American Bar Association's criminal-justice section, said the ruling would extend protections to innocent third parties who sometimes have been abused in the government's efforts to crack down on drug trafficking.
"There are enough instances of abuse that it's a potentially serious problem," said Mr. Sonnett, who has appointed an ABA task force to examine forfeiture practices around the country.
While property forfeiture can be "a very effective weapon" for prosecutors, he said, "if it's used to the detriment of innocent third parties, its purpose becomes twisted."
The Justice Department had no comment on the decision.
In the case decided yesterday, Beth Ann Goodwin of Rumson, N.J., bought a $240,000 house in 1982 using $216,000 she received from her boyfriend at the time, Joseph Brenna.
The couple lived together in the house until 1987, when Ms. Goodwin broke off her six-year relationship with Mr. Brenna and ordered him to leave. In 1989, federal officials tried to seize the house, where Ms. Goodwin still lives with her three children, on the grounds that it was purchased with money traceable to the sale of marijuana smuggled from Colombia.
Officials indicted Mr. Brenna the following year on federal drug charges in Florida.
A federal judge allowed the seizure to take place, saying Ms. Goodwin was not entitled to a hearing to determine whether she knew the source of Mr. Brenna's gift. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a hearing on Ms. Goodwin's claim, and the Supreme Court upheld the appeals court.