WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, dividing 5-4, ruled yesterday that the Constitution allows police and prosecutors to seize property used in a crime even when the owner had nothing to do with the crime.
The decision appeared to go well beyond the specific seizure the court upheld: a Michigan woman's loss of the family car, bought with her money, because her husband had sex in it with a prostitute.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the decision, relied mainly on a theory -- dating to an 1827 ruling -- that the property itself is in the wrong when used illegally, so it makes no difference that the owner was unaware of that use.
"The thing is primarily considered as the offender," the chief justice wrote, quoting from the 169-year-old case involving the U.S. government's capture of an armed Spanish warship.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in a caustic dissent, said that the ruling gave "virtually unbridled power to confiscate vast amounts of property." After this decision, he added, "the power to seize property is virtually unlimited."
Obviously stung by Justice Stevens' attack, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted with the majority, suggested in a separate opinion that the ruling was not as broad as the dissenters made it seem. Lower courts, she said, could be counted upon "to police exorbitant applications of the statute."
Justice Ginsburg said the court was not condoning widespread use of such forfeitures to punish innocent owners of property. A key factor in this case, she said, was that Michigan was seeking to deter those who go looking for prostitutes "from using cars to contribute to neighborhood blight."
Because Justice Ginsburg's vote was necessary to reach a five-justice majority, her comments could be interpreted by lower courts as a limit on the sweep of the Rehnquist opinion -- even though the chief justice did not endorse her view.
Justice Stevens retorted that Justice Ginsburg's assurances had "a hollow ring," noting that the Michigan courts did not stop the seizure of the family car in this case.
The ruling marked a significant break with several recent decisions by the court to curb government's power to seize private property. Three years ago, for example, the court said that forfeitures that resulted in the loss of "excessive" amounts of property, relative to the crime committed, would be unconstitutional.
Justice Stevens said the new decision was "dramatically at odds" with that earlier decision, and warned that the court was broadening government power to punish "innocent people" when someone uses their property in a crime.
The decision was the first in which the court rejected the argument that the Constitution requires that "innocent owners" be protected against the seizure of their property after it has been used illegally by someone else.
The Michigan woman, Tina B. Bennis, of Royal Oak, claimed that as an innocent co-owner of the 1977 Pontiac seized and sold by Michigan prosecutors in 1988, she had a constitutional right to compensation.
Police said they observed her steelworker husband, John Charles Bennis, use the car to pick up a prostitute in a neighborhood outside Detroit and said they saw the prostitute performing a sex act on him in the car's front seat. Prosecutors then sought the car's forfeiture, on the theory that it was a "public nuisance" under a anti-prostitution law.
Michigan's Supreme Court rejected Mrs. Bennis' constitutional challenge, and she took the matter to the Supreme Court.
The court yesterday took another significant action on criminal law yesterday: It agreed to spell out, in an Ohio case, what the Constitution allows police to do to a motorist whose car has been stopped for a traffic violation.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in September that, after police have made a legal traffic stop, they must tell the motorist that he or she is free to go before the officer may do any further questioning -- including asking permission to search the car.
Ohio officials challenged that ruling in an appeal, supported by prosecutors in 13 other states. The officials contended that the ruling put too tight a limit on police authority in roadside encounters.
Agent Orange makers denied
The court ruled 6-2 that the federal government has no duty to reimburse chemical companies for the money those companies paid to settle damage claims by Vietnam veterans and their families for harms done by exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. The toxic chemical was used to destroy enemy food supplies and make it more difficult for enemy troops to hide.
The companies argued that because the government ordered them to make the defoliant, it should share the compensation costs. The court rejected the plea, saying that the government had made no promises that it would cover such losses.
Pub Date: 3/05/96