516 U.S. 442 (1996), 94-8729, Bennis v. Michigan

Docket Nº:Case No. 94-8729
Citation:516 U.S. 442, 116 S.Ct. 994, 134 L.Ed.2d 68, 64 U.S.L.W. 4124
Party Name:BENNIS v. MICHIGAN
Case Date:March 04, 1996
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 442

516 U.S. 442 (1996)

116 S.Ct. 994, 134 L.Ed.2d 68, 64 U.S.L.W. 4124

BENNIS

v.

MICHIGAN

Case No. 94-8729

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 1996

Argued November 29, 1995

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MICHIGAN

Syllabus

Petitioner was a joint owner, with her husband, of an automobile in which her husband engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute. In declaring the automobile forfeit as a public nuisance under Michigan's statutory abatement scheme, the trial court permitted no offset for petitioner's interest, notwithstanding her lack of knowledge of her husband's activity. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, but was in turn reversed by the State Supreme Court, which concluded, inter alia, that Michigan's failure to provide an innocent-owner defense was without federal constitutional consequence under this Court's decisions.

Held:

The forfeiture order did not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 446-453.

(a) Michigan's abatement scheme has not deprived petitioner of her interest in the forfeited car without due process. Her claim that she was entitled to contest the abatement by showing that she did not know that her husband would use the car to violate state law is defeated by a long and unbroken line of cases in which this Court has held that an owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use. See, e. g., Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U.S. 465, 467-468, and Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 668, 683; Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 80, and Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 617-618, distinguished. These cases are too firmly fixed in the country's punitive and remedial jurisprudence to be now displaced. Cf. J. W. Goldsmith, Jr.-Grant Co. v. United States, 254 U.S. 505, 511. Pp. 446-452.

(b) Michigan's abatement scheme has not taken petitioner's property for public use without compensation. Because the forfeiture proceeding did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, her property in the automobile was transferred by virtue of that proceeding to the State. The government may not be required to compensate an owner for property which it has already lawfully acquired under the exercise of governmental authority other than the power of eminent domain. See, e. g., United States v. Fuller, 409 U.S. 488, 492. Pp. 452-453.

447 Mich. 719, 527 N.W.2d 483, affirmed.

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Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., post, p. 453, and Ginsburg, J., post, p. 457, filed concurring opinions. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 458. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 472.

Stefan B. Herpel argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Larry L. Roberts argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were John D. O'Hair and George E. Ward.

Richard H. Seamon argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben. [*]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was a joint owner, with her husband, of an automobile in which her husband engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute. A Michigan court ordered the automobile forfeited as a public nuisance, with no offset for her interest, notwithstanding her lack of knowledge of her husband's activity. We hold that the Michigan court order did not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Detroit police arrested John Bennis after observing him engaged in a sexual act with a prostitute in the automobile while it was parked on a Detroit city street. Bennis was convicted of gross indecency.[1] The State then sued both

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Bennis and his wife, petitioner Tina B. Bennis, to have the car declared a public nuisance and abated as such under §§ 600.3801[2] and 600.3825[3] of Michigan's Compiled Laws.

Petitioner defended against the abatement of her interest in the car on the ground that, when she entrusted her husband to use the car, she did not know that he would use it to violate Michigan's indecency law. The Wayne County Circuit Court rejected this argument, declared the car a public nuisance, and ordered the car's abatement. In reaching this disposition, the trial court judge recognized the remedial discretion he had under Michigan's case law. App. 21. He

Page 445

took into account the couple's ownership of "another automobile," so they would not be left "without transportation." Id., at 25. He also mentioned his authority to order the payment of one-half of the sale proceeds, after the deduction of costs, to "the innocent co-title holder." Id., at 21. He declined to order such a division of sale proceeds in this case because of the age and value of the car (an 11-year-old Pontiac sedan recently purchased by John and Tina Bennis for $600); he commented in this regard: "[T]here's practically nothing left minus costs in a situation such as this." Id., at 25.

The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, holding that regardless of the language of Michigan Compiled Law § 600.3815(2),[4] Michigan Supreme Court precedent interpreting this section prevented the State from abating petitioner's interest absent proof that she knew to what end the car would be used. Alternatively, the intermediate appellate court ruled that the conduct in question did not qualify as a public nuisance because only one occurrence was shown and there was no evidence of payment for the sexual act. 200 Mich.App. 670, 504 N.W.2d 731 (1993).

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the abatement in its entirety. 447 Mich. 719, 527 N.W.2d 483 (1994). It concluded as a matter of state law that the episode in the Bennis vehicle was an abatable nuisance. Rejecting the Court of Appeals' interpretation of § 600.3815(2), the court then announced that, in order to abate an owner's interest in a vehicle, Michigan does not need to prove that the owner knew or agreed that her vehicle would be used in a manner proscribed by § 600.3801 when she entrusted it to another user. Id., at 737, 527N. W. 2d, at 492. The court next addressed petitioner's

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federal constitutional challenges to the State's abatement scheme: The court assumed that petitioner did not know of or consent to the misuse of the Bennis car, and concluded in light of our decisions in Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U.S. 465(1926), and Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416U.S. 663 (1974), that Michigan's failure to provide an innocent-owner defense was "without constitutional consequence." 447 Mich., at 740-741, 527 N.W. 2d, at 493-494. The Michigan Supreme Court specifically noted that, in its view, an owner's interest may not be abated when "a vehicle is used without the owner's consent." Id., at 742, n. 36, 527N. W. 2d, at 495, n. 36. Furthermore, the court confirmed the trial court's description of the nuisance abatement proceeding as an "equitable action," and considered it "critical" that the trial judge so comprehended the statute. Id., at 742, 527 N.W. 2d, at 495.

We granted certiorari in order to determine whether Michigan's abatement scheme has deprived petitioner of her interest in the forfeited car without due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, or has taken her interest for public use without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment. 515 U.S. 1121 (1995). We affirm.

The gravamen of petitioner's due process claim is not that she was denied notice or an opportunity to contest the abatement of her car; she was accorded both. Cf. United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U.S. 43 (1993). Rather, she claims she was entitled to contest the abatement by showing she did not know her husband would use it to violate Michigan's indecency law. But a long and unbroken line of cases holds that an owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use.

Our earliest opinion to this effect is Justice Story's opinion for the Court in The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1 (1827). The Palmyra,

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which had been commissioned as a privateer by the King of Spain and had attacked a United States vessel, was captured by a United States warship and brought into Charleston, South Carolina, for adjudication. Id., at 8. On the Government's appeal from the Circuit Court's acquittal of the vessel, it was contended by the owner that the vessel could not be forfeited until he was convicted for the privateering. The Court rejected this contention, explaining: "The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing." Id., at 14. In another admiralty forfeiture decision 17 years later, Justice Story wrote for the Court that in in rem admiralty proceedings "the acts of the master and crew . . . bind the interest of the owner of the ship, whether he be innocent or guilty; and he impliedly submits to whatever the law denounces as a forfeiture attached to the ship by reason of their unlawful or wanton wrongs." Harmony v. United States, 2 How. 210, 234 (1844) (emphasis added).

In Dobbins's Distillery v. United States, 96 U.S. 395, 401(1878), this Court upheld the forfeiture of property used by a lessee in fraudulently avoiding federal alcohol taxes,...

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