Carroll County's Narcotics Task Force should pay special attention to the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision curtailing the use of excessive forfeitures in drug cases. The decision, handed down on the court's last day of the session, calls into question a number of the aggressive forfeiture practices Carroll's task force regularly uses.
The case before the Supreme Court involved a South Dakota man who had his car-repair business and trailer home seized after he sold two ounces of cocaine to an undercover officer. The key element in the Supreme Court's decision is that the seizure of property must be considered a punishment. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the author of the decision, said that forfeiture is a fine -- "the payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense" -- and therefore subject to the limitations of the the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits excessive fines.
The court rejected arguments that forfeitures in drug cases could be justified because they remove "instruments" of the drug trade and compensate government for law-enforcement costs.
Because asset forfeiture is designed to deter and punish, the court also said there has to be some relationship between the seriousness of the crime and the property that is taken. Officers of Carroll's narcotics task force routinely seize suspects' automobiles whenever they find drugs in the car. They then force the defendants to "buy back" the car. The court condemned such a practice, indicating the possession of drugs on a person driving a car doesn't give the government carte blanche to seize the car. "There is nothing even remotely criminal in possessing an automobile," said Mr. Blackmun.
While the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force has pushed the state drug forfeiture law to its limit, its future use will likely be circumscribed. It will not be so quick to seize money without having any evidence that drugs were involved, as it has done.
This ruling, along with earlier ones, clearly indicates there has to be a connection between the charges lodged against a defendant and the seized property. The days of seizing property and later worrying about proving a case are over. The Supreme Court has issued a strong reminder to all prosecutors that even in the war against drugs, the U.S. Constitution must be obeyed.