Honeycutt v. United States

Decision Date05 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16–142.,16–142.
Citation198 L.Ed.2d 73,137 S.Ct. 1626
Parties Terry Michael HONEYCUTT, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Adam G. Unikowsky, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Brian H. Fletcher, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Noel J. Francisco, Acting Solicitor General, Kenneth A. Blanco, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Brian H. Fletcher, Assistant to the Solicitor General, James I. Pearce, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Christopher Townley, Townley, Lindsay & Rawls, LLC, Rossville, GA, David A. Strauss, Sarah M. Konsky, Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, IL, Adam G. Unikowsky, Zachary C. Schauf, Samuel C. Birnbaum, Jenner & Block LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

A federal statute21 U.S.C. § 853 —mandates forfeiture of "any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of" certain drug crimes. This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute's text and structure.


Terry Michael Honeycutt managed sales and inventory for a Tennessee hardware store owned by his brother, Tony Honeycutt. After observing several " ‘edgy looking folks' " purchasing an iodine-based water-purification product known as Polar Pure, Terry Honeycutt contacted the Chattanooga Police Department to inquire whether the iodine crystals in the product could be used to manufacture methamphetamine. App. to Pet. for Cert. 2a. An officer confirmed that individuals were using Polar Pure for this purpose and advised Honeycutt to cease selling it if the sales made Honeycutt " ‘uncomfortable.’ " Ibid. Notwithstanding the officer's advice, the store continued to sell large quantities of Polar Pure. Although each bottle of Polar Pure contained enough iodine to purify 500 gallons of water, and despite the fact that most people have no legitimate use for the product in large quantities, the brothers sold as many as 12 bottles in a single transaction to a single customer. Over a 3–year period, the store grossed roughly $400,000 from the sale of more than 20,000 bottles of Polar Pure.

Unsurprisingly, these sales prompted an investigation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration along with state and local law enforcement. Authorities executed a search warrant at the store in November 2010 and seized its entire inventory of Polar Pure—more than 300 bottles. A federal grand jury indicted the Honeycutt brothers for various federal crimes relating to their sale of iodine while knowing or having reason to believe it would be used to manufacture methamphetamine. Pursuant to the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act of 1984, § 303, 98 Stat. 2045, 21 U.S.C. § 853(a)(1), which mandates forfeiture of "any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of" drug distribution, the Government sought forfeiture money judgments against each brother in the amount of $269,751.98, which represented the hardware store's profits from the sale of Polar Pure. Tony Honeycutt pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000. Terry went to trial. A jury acquitted Terry Honeycutt of 3 charges but found him guilty of the remaining 11, including conspiring to and knowingly distributing iodine in violation of §§ 841(c)(2), 843(a)(6), and 846.

The District Court sentenced Terry Honeycutt to 60 months in prison. Despite conceding that Terry had no "controlling interest in the store" and "did not stand to benefit personally," the Government insisted that the District Court "hold [him] jointly liable for the profit from the illegal sales." App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a–61a. The Government thus sought a money judgment of $69,751.98, the amount of the conspiracy profits outstanding after Tony Honeycutt's forfeiture payment. The District Court declined to enter a forfeiture judgment, reasoning that Honeycutt was a salaried employee who had not personally received any profits from the iodine sales.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. As co-conspirators, the court held, the brothers are " ‘jointly and severally liable for any proceeds of the conspiracy.’ " 816 F.3d 362, 380 (2016). The court therefore concluded that each brother bore full responsibility for the entire forfeiture judgment. Ibid .

The Court granted certiorari to resolve disagreement among the Courts of Appeals regarding whether joint and several liability applies under § 853.1 580 U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 588, 196 L.Ed.2d 462 (2016).


Criminal forfeiture statutes empower the Government to confiscate property derived from or used to facilitate criminal activity. Such statutes serve important governmental interests such as "separating a criminal from his ill-gotten gains," "returning property, in full, to those wrongfully deprived or defrauded of it," and "lessen[ing] the economic power" of criminal enterprises. Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered v. United States, 491 U.S. 617, 629–630, 109 S.Ct. 2646, 105 L.Ed.2d 528 (1989). The statute at issue here— § 853 —mandates forfeiture with respect to persons convicted of certain serious drug crimes. The question presented is whether § 853 embraces joint and several liability for forfeiture judgments.

A creature of tort law, joint and several liability "applies when there has been a judgment against multiple defendants." McDermott, Inc. v. AmClyde, 511 U.S. 202, 220–221, 114 S.Ct. 1461, 128 L.Ed.2d 148 (1994). If two or more defendants jointly cause harm, each defendant is held liable for the entire amount of the harm; provided, however, that the plaintiff recover only once for the full amount. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 875 (1977). Application of that principle in the forfeiture context when two or more defendants conspire to violate the law would require that each defendant be held liable for a forfeiture judgment based not only on property that he used in or acquired because of the crime, but also on property obtained by his co-conspirator.

An example is instructive. Suppose a farmer masterminds a scheme to grow, harvest, and distribute marijuana on local college campuses. The mastermind recruits a college student to deliver packages and pays the student $300 each month from the distribution proceeds for his services. In one year, the mastermind earns $3 million. The student, meanwhile, earns $3,600. If joint and several liability applied, the student would face a forfeiture judgment for the entire amount of the conspiracy's proceeds: $3 million. The student would be bound by that judgment even though he never personally acquired any proceeds beyond the $3,600. This case requires determination whether this form of liability is permitted under § 853(a)(1). The Court holds that it is not.


Forfeiture under § 853 applies to "any person" convicted of certain serious drug crimes. Section 853(a) limits the statute's reach by defining the property subject to forfeiture in three separate provisions. An understanding of how these three provisions work to limit the operation of the statute is helpful to resolving the question in this case. First, the provision at issue here, § 853(a)(1), limits forfeiture to "property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of" the crime. Second, § 853(a)(2) restricts forfeiture to "property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit, or to facilitate the commission of," the crime. Finally, § 853(a)(3) applies to persons "convicted of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise"—a form of conspiracy—and requires forfeiture of "property described in paragraph (1) or (2)" as well as "any of [the defendant's] interest in, claims against, and property or contractual rights affording a source of control over, the continuing criminal enterprise." These provisions, by their terms, limit forfeiture under § 853 to tainted property; that is, property flowing from ( § 853(a)(1) ), or used in ( § 853(a)(2) ), the crime itself. The limitations of § 853(a) thus provide the first clue that the statute does not countenance joint and several liability, which, by its nature, would require forfeiture of untainted property.

Recall, for example, the college student from the earlier hypothetical. The $3,600 he received for his part in the marijuana distribution scheme clearly falls within § 853(a)(1) : It is property he "obtained ... as the result of" the crime. But if he were held jointly and severally liable for the proceeds of the entire conspiracy, he would owe the Government $3 million. Of the $3 million, $2,996,400 would have no connection whatsoever to the student's participation in the crime and would have to be paid from the student's untainted assets. Joint and several liability would thus represent a departure from § 853(a)'s restriction of forfeiture to tainted property.

In addition to limiting forfeiture to tainted property, § 853(a) defines forfeitable property solely in terms of personal possession or use. This is most clear in the specific text of § 853(a)(1) —the provision under which the Government sought forfeiture in this case. Section 853(a)(1) limits forfeiture to property the defendant "obtained ... as the result of" the crime. At the time Congress enacted § 853(a)(1), the verb "obtain" was defined as "to come into possession of" or to "get or acquire." Random House Dictionary of the English Language 995 (1966); see also 7 Oxford English Dictionary 37 (1933) (defining "obtain" as "[t]o come into the possession or enjoyment of (so...

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