WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court decided yesterday to spell out the constitutional rights of property owners who did nothing wrong but whose cars, houses or other goods were seized after being used by someone else in a crime.
In a case testing whether the justices will continue cutting back on property forfeiture laws, the court voted to hear the appeal of a Michigan woman who lost a car -- owned jointly with her husband -- after police caught the husband in the car engaging in a sex act with a prostitute.
Tina B. Bennis, a mother of five who works at odd jobs in newspaper delivery, office cleaning and cafeteria cooking, told state courts she had no idea that the car was used by her husband to engage in lewd conduct. The car was taken anyway and sold.
Mrs. Bennis and her husband, John Charles Bennis, remain together. But she is pursuing the court case on her own, as part-owner of the 1977 Pontiac that county officials seized after the incident in an area of Detroit known for prostitution. Mrs. Bennis' appeal provides a further test of the court's view on property forfeiture, in the wake of several decisions that curbed federal government forfeitures in particular.
Stefan B. Herpel, the Ann Arbor, Mich., lawyer who is representing Mrs. Bennis for free, said optimistically yesterday that "the period of judicial acquiescence in forfeitures is ending."
He said that more than 100 federal laws provide for criminal forfeitures, and many of those say nothing about exceptions for innocent owners whose goods get caught up in crime. A wide variety of similar laws also exist at the state level, he said.
Civil rights lawyers have been waging court battles against forfeitures. Among their most recent attacks are challenges to the loss of a right to remain in a public housing project if a family member is involved in drug crimes.
Under the Michigan law used in the forfeiture of the Pontiac owned by the Bennis family, the owner's knowledge or consent of property being used in crime makes no difference: If the property was involved, prosecutors can seize it on the theory that the property in fact committed the crime. Seizure is added to the punishment of the defendant.
Mr. Bennis was arrested and convicted of gross indecency. Prosecutors then seized the car. A final decision on his wife's appeal is expected sometime next year.
In another action yesterday on criminal law, the court ruled 8 to 1 that before going off to prison, someone convicted of federal crimes gets no credit for time served in a privately run halfway house not under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Only if the time before prison is spent in a Bureau of Prisons facility, the court ruled, does the time count toward the sentence -- even though someone may have been sent to a halfway house by court order.
The case involved Ziya K. Koray, a native of Turkey now living in New York state. He was caught in a U.S. Customs investigation in 1990 of a Turkish operation to distribute heroin in Baltimore. He was arrested by Baltimore detectives on a downtown street; they found $320,000 in cash in the trunk of the car.
He had spent about 150 days in a Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore in 1991. Koray had pleaded guilty in federal court in Baltimore to illegal money "laundering," and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
A magistrate sent him temporarily to the Volunteers facility in downtown Baltimore, where he remained until he was moved to the federal prison camp in Allenwood, Pa. A federal appeals court ruled that, because he was confined 24 hours a day, and left the facility only once for a medical exam, Koray was clearly in official detention, and thus had a right to count the halfway house time toward his sentence. The Supreme Court overturned that result.