WASHINGTON -- John Charles Bennis could not have known he was giving his wife a grievance about her constitutional rights when, on his way home from work one evening years ago, he made a deal with a prostitute.
But his sexual transaction on a Detroit street cost him and his wife the family car. Tina Bennis has gone all the way to the Supreme Court to recover its $600 value -- thus stirring up a controversy with major implications for prosecutors and judges in Maryland and elsewhere.
As her case -- which will be heard tomorrow -- has unfolded, it has produced a crosscurrent of big and small issues for the justices: how far government forfeiture authority may go; what -- role do cars play in crime; and what might Mrs. Bennis have been expected to know about her husband's after-work behavior.
Many prosecutors regard forfeiture as a primary weapon against serious crimes, especially in drug cases. "When you start taking people's money and property, they start feeling it in the pocketbook," said Logan C. Widdowson, state's attorney for Maryland's Somerset County.
He noted that many drug offenders do not serve their full sentences because of prison and jail overcrowding. "Soon, they're back on the streets; forfeiture is one way of slowing them down," Mr. Widdowson said.
In the Michigan prostitution case, the 1977 Pontiac driven by the customer was seized as a "public nuisance" -- a vehicle that aided in an act of "gross indecency."
Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael J. Talbot, ordering the forfeiture because of Mr. Bennis' "blatant insensitivity," said he was just trying to balance the scales of justice on prostitution. He said he wanted to make sure that while the women may go to jail, their male customers get punished, too.
His order, coming up for review in the Supreme Court tomorrow, was aimed primarily at Mr. Bennis, a steelworker from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.
If Mr. Bennis "has a speck of decency left in him," the judge remarked, "let him worry about his transportation and give Mrs. Bennis" the other family car, a 1978 Oldsmobile.
His wife of 16 years has asked the justices to rule that, since she did nothing wrong, it was unconstitutional for the state of Michigan to seize the couple's jointly-owned Pontiac.
And thus a tawdry little incident in October 1988 has turned into a major legal fracas being closely watched by prosecutors who seek to use property seizures as added punishment for everything from neighborhood street crimes to international drug plots.
Anything used during serious crimes -- cars, boats, planes, houses, farms -- may be at risk under federal and state criminal forfeiture laws, as is any cash or other property that appears to be the "proceeds" of crime.
Limits in Maryland
In Maryland, where state criminal laws allow forfeiture, the Court of Appeals in September put strict limits on such seizures. It said the value of property seized must not exceed the severity of the crime.
The Supreme Court has never faced a dispute that parallels Mrs. Bennis'. Two years ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy remarked: "At some point we may have to confront the constitutional question whether forfeiture is permitted when the owner has committed no wrong of any sort. That for me would raise a serious question."
That is exactly the issue the court has agreed to decide in Mrs. Bennis' appeal.
The case involves only the forfeiture of the couple's Pontiac. In a separate criminal case, her husband pleaded guilty to indecency, was fined $250 and ordered to do community service. He is not involved in her appeal. The couple remains together, according to their lawyer. They have not been granting interviews.
A coalition of anti-crime groups has told the court that taking cars from those who use the vehicles in crime is a powerful deterrent. According to the coalition, the late Richard J. Daley, as mayor of Chicago, proposed seizing cars in prostitution cases, commenting: "When someone commits a crime and you take their car -- oh, my God, it's like taking their home."
Justice Dept. involved
The Justice Department has joined in the case to emphasize the threat it sees to federal forfeiture powers if the court goes too far to protect "innocent owners."
But the department also has sought, in an implied attack on Mrs. Bennis, to introduce a sharp note of skepticism about how she handled her responsibility of making sure the family car was not used for crime.
One security guard, the department noted, testified that he had seen Mr. Bennis twice soliciting prostitutes in the neighborhood where he later was caught.
"That testimony," the department said, "suggests a pattern of behavior, of which it would be more reasonable to expect a spouse to know than a single instance of behavior."
When Judge Talbot ordered the couple's Pontiac forfeited, he had sympathy for Mrs. Bennis.
"In a given situation," the judge said, "I would consider the concerns of Mrs. Bennis." But, he said, "there's another automobile," and the Pontiac was old and worth little. After it was sold, not much would be left to compensate the wife for her loss.
Mrs. Bennis has insisted that the $600 paid for the Pontiac was "more mine" than her husband's, that the money came mainly out of her earnings as a baby sitter and newspaper carrier.
She testified that she did not know that her husband was going to do anything other than come home from his job on the evening of Oct. 3, 1988.
That evening happened to be one of the first on which Detroit police enforced a new policy of seizing cars from individuals found driving around looking for chances to buy sex.
Responding to complaints by homeowners of the Green Acres neighborhood about what they suspected were illegal sex transactions happening in front of their homes, police began tracking suspected prostitutes as they tried to hail passing cars along Detroit's northern border, Eight Mile Road.
Two vice squad officers, waiting in a car in a bank parking lot, noticed a blue Pontiac stop and pick up a woman wearing a light brown leather jacket, blue jeans and high heels. One officer, P. O. Anthony, said later that he recognized the woman: He had arrested her several times for disorderly conduct.
When the Pontiac came to a stop, the two policemen approached and Officer Anthony used his flashlight. He testified he witnessed a sex act.
Mr. Bennis and the woman were arrested, and officials promptly began a forfeiture case. The fate of the woman is not disclosed in court papers, other than that she, like Mr. Bennis, was accused of "gross indecency."
In ordering the car forfeited, Judge Talbot stressed that he was punishing Mr. Bennis for going to another neighborhood to contribute to its problem of prostitution.
What's more, the judge said, it would be "classic chauvinism and sexism" to worry more over the customer's property than over the "loss of freedom" for a prostitute who goes to jail. "No one sheds a tear," he said, when a prostitute spends 60 to 90 days behind bars, "but let the 'john' run the risk of the loss of his property, and everybody cries, 'How harsh, how severe a remedy.' "
Forfeiture of the car, he concluded, was "perfectly reasonable" for "this kind of obscene conduct."
That conduct, Mrs. Bennis' lawyer contended in the appeal, cannot be blamed in any way on her. "A wife would not have advance knowledge that her husband was planning to use their automobile in the manner John Bennis was found to have used it, even assuming that the husband had planned the act in advance," the attorney argued.