Austin v. United States, No. 92-6073

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concu
Citation125 L.Ed.2d 488,509 U.S. 602,113 S.Ct. 2801
PartiesRichard Lyle AUSTIN, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
Docket NumberNo. 92-6073
Decision Date28 June 1993

509 U.S. 602
113 S.Ct. 2801
125 L.Ed.2d 488
Richard Lyle AUSTIN, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 92-6073.
Argued April 20, 1993.
Decided June 28, 1993.
Syllabus *

After a state court sentenced petitioner Austin on his guilty plea to one count of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of South Dakota law, the United States filed an in rem action in Federal District Court against his mobile home and auto body shop under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(4) and (a)(7), which provide for the forfeiture of, respectively, vehicles and real property used, or intended to be used, to facilitate the commission of certain drug-related crimes. In granting the Government summary judgment on the basis of an officer's affidavit that Austin had brought two ounces of cocaine from the mobile home to the body shop in order to consummate a prearranged sale there, the court rejected Austin's argument that forfeiture of his properties would violate the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing with the Government that the Eighth Amendment is inapplicable to in rem civil forfeitures.

Held:

1. Forfeiture under §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) is a monetary punishment and, as such, is subject to the limitations of the Excessive Fines Clause. Pp. 2804-12.

(a) The determinative question is not, as the Government would have it, whether forfeiture under §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) is civil or criminal. The Eighth Amendment's text is not expressly limited to criminal cases, and its history does not require such a limitation. Rather, the crucial question is whether the forfeiture is monetary punishment, with which the Excessive Fines Clause is particularly concerned. Because sanctions frequently serve more than one purpose, the fact that a forfeiture serves remedial goals will not exclude it from the Clause's purview, so long as it can only be explained as serving in part to punish. See United States v. Halper, 490 U.S. 435, 448, 109 S.Ct. 1892, 1901, 104 L.Ed.2d 487. Thus, consideration must be given to whether, at the time the Eighth Amendment was ratified, forfeiture was understood at least in part as punishment and whether forfeiture under § 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) should be so understood today. Pp. 2804-06.

(b) A review of English and American law before, at the time of, and following the ratification of the Eighth Amendment demonstrates that forfeiture generally and statutory in rem forfeiture in particular historically have been understood, at least in part, as punishment. See, e.g., Peisch v. Ware, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 347, 364, 2 L.Ed. 643. The same understanding runs through this Court's cases rejecting the "innocence" of the owner as a common-law defense to forfeiture. See, e.g., Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 683, 686, 687, 94 S.Ct. 2080, 2091, 2093, 2094, 40 L.Ed.2d 452. Pp. 2806-10.

(c) Forfeitures under §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) are properly conside ed punishment today, since nothing in these provisions contradicts the historical understanding, since both sections clearly focus on the owner's culpability by expressly providing "innocent owner" defenses and by tying forfeiture directly to the commission of drug offenses, and since the legislative history confirms that Congress understood the provisions as serving to deter and to punish. Thus, even assuming that the sections serve some remedial purpose, it cannot be concluded that forfeiture under the sections serves only that purpose. Pp. 2810-12.

2. The Court declines to establish a test for determining whether a forfeiture is constitutionally "excessive," since prudence dictates that the lower courts be allowed to consider that question in the first instance. P. 2812.

964 F.2d 814 (CA8 1992), reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and THOMAS, J., joined.

Richard L. Johnson, Sioux Falls, SD, for petitioner.

Miguel A. Estrada, New York City, for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we are asked to decide whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to forfeitures of property under 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7). We hold that it does and therefore remand the case for consideration of the question whether the forfeiture at issue here was excessive.

I

On August 2, 1990, petitioner Richard Lyle Austin was indicted on four counts of violating South Dakota's drug laws. Austin ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced by the state court to seven years' imprisonment. On September 7, the United States filed an in rem action in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota seeking forfeiture of Austin's mobile home and auto body shop under 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7).1 Austin filed a claim and an answer to the complaint.

On February 4, 1991, the United States made a motion, supported by an affidavit from Sioux Falls Police Officer Donald Satterlee, for summary judgment. According to Satterlee's affidavit, Austin met Keith Engebretson at Austin's body shop on June 13, 1990, and agreed to sell cocaine to Engebretson. Austin left the shop, went to his mobile home, and returned to the shop with two grams of cocaine which he sold to Engebretson. State authorities executed a search warrant on the body shop and mobile home the following day. They discovered small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, a .22 caliber revolver, drug paraphernalia, and approximately $4,700 in cash. App. 13. In opposing summary judgment, Austin argued that forfeiture of the properties would violate the Eighth Amendment.2 The District Court rejected this argument and entered summary judgment for the United States. App. 19.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit "reluctantly agree[d] with the government" and affirmed. United States v. One Parcel of Property, 964 F.2d 814, 817 (1992). Although it thought that "the principle of proportionality should be applied in civil actions that result in harsh penalties," ibid., and that the Government was "exacting too high a penalty in relation to the offense committed," id., at 818, the court felt constrained from holding the forfeiture unconstitutional. It cited this Court's decision in Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 94 S.Ct. 2080, 40 L.Ed.2d 452 (1974), for the proposition that, when the Government is proceeding against property in rem, the guilt or innocence of the property's owner "is constitutionally irrelevant." 964 F.2d, at 817. It then reasoned: "We are constrained to agree with the Ninth Circuit that '[i]f the constitution allows in rem forfeiture to be visited upon innocent owners . . . the constitution hardly requires proportionality review of forfeitures.' " Ibid., quoting United States v. Tax Lot 1500, 861 F.2d 232, 234 (CA9 1988), cert. denied sub nom. Jaffee v. United States, 493 U.S. 954, 110 S.Ct. 364, 107 L.Ed.2d 351 (1989).

We granted certiorari, 506 U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 1036, 122 L.Ed.2d 347 (1993), to resolve an apparent conflict with the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit over the applicability of the Eighth Amendment to in rem civil forfeitures. See United States v. Certain Real Property, 954 F.2d 29, 35, 38-39, cert. denied, 506 U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 55, 121 L.Ed.2d 24 (1992).

II

Austin contends that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to in rem civil forfeiture proceedings. See Brief for Petitioner 10, 19, 23. We have had occasion to consider this Clause only once before. In Browning-Ferris Industries v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 109 S.Ct. 2909, 106 L.Ed.2d 219 (1989), we held that the Excessive Fines Clause does not limit the award of punitive damages to a private party in a civil suit when the government neither has prosecuted the action nor has any right to receive a share of the damages. Id., at 264, 109 S.Ct. at 2914. The Court's opinion and Justice O'CONNOR's opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, reviewed in some detail the history of the Excessive Fines Clause. See id., at 264-268, 286-297, 109 S.Ct. at 2914-2916, 2926-2931. The Court concluded that both the Eighth Amendment and § 10 of the English Bill of Rights of 1689, from which it derives, were intended to prevent the government from abusing its power to punish, see id., at 266-267, 109 S.Ct., at 2916, and therefore "that the Excessive Fines Clause was intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by, and payable to, the government," id., at 268, 109 S.Ct., at 2916.3

We found it unnecessary to decide in Browning-Ferris whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies only to criminal cases. Id., at 263, 109 S.Ct., at 2914. The United States now argues that

"any claim that the government's conduct in a civil proceeding is limited by the Eighth Amendment generally, or by the Excessive Fines Clause in particular, must fail unless the challenged governmental action, despite its label, would have been recognized as a criminal punishment at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted." Brief for United States 16 (emphasis added).

It further sugg sts that the Eighth Amendment cannot apply to a civil proceeding unless that proceeding is so punitive that it must be considered criminal under Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, 372 U.S. 144, 83 S.Ct. 554, 9 L.Ed.2d 644 (1963), and United States v. Ward, 448 U.S. 242, 100 S.Ct. 2636, 65 L.Ed.2d 742 (1980). Brief for United States 26-27. We disagree.

Some provisions of the Bill of Rights are expressly limited to criminal cases. The Fifth Amendment's Self-Incrimination Clause, for example, provides: "No person . . . shall be compelled...

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  • State v. Nunez, No. 23
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