Today in 1993: SCOTUS invalidates house seizure by federal government for financial gain

December 13, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryThe Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment holds that the government may not deprive any person “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This provision has been present in the Constitution since its ratification; yet, the government still continues to have some trouble understanding this limitation: recent history finds a plethora of cases in which the government is accused of seizing property without due process – and the respective reviewing courts often agree.

One case, decided 20 years ago today, provides a particularly egregious example of the flouting of due process by government actors: United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property.

The Supreme Court case involved a man – James Daniel Good – who, during a drug bust, had been caught with “drugs and drug paraphernalia” in his home.  Good pleaded guilty, was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, five years of probation, and a fine.  In addition, Good was ordered to forfeit the $3,187 in cash found on the premises during the police raid on his house.

Good served his time, rented his house to a third party, and left the country.

Four and a half years after the drug bust, however, the U.S. government filed an in rem action seeking forfeiture of Good’s house and land, on the ground that the property had been used to commit or facilitate the commission of a federal drug offense.

After an ex parte proceeding, a magistrate judge issued a warrant authorizing the property’s seizure, and the Government seized the property without prior notice to Good or an adversary proceeding.  After the property was seized, Good responded to the government’s action by claiming that the seizure had violated the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The district court sided with the government, but the court of appeals reversed, finding that the seizure without prior notice and a hearing violated the Due Process Clause.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and on December 13, 1993, it ruled five to four in Good’s favor.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Blackmun, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, found the government  bound by the restraints imposed by the Fifth Amendment, which ensures that the property owner has the right to prior notice and a hearing before his property is seized.

The Court noted that it recognized exceptions to this rule, “but only in ‘extraordinary situations where some valid governmental interest is at stake that justifies postponing the hearing until after the event.’”  Most of the time, this exception is invoked to prevent the loss of evidence.  The majority found, however, “that no showing of exigent circumstances has been made in this case,” and the seizure was ruled invalid.

It may seem odd that the government waited almost five years before initiating forfeiture proceedings – after Good had served his prison sentence to boot.

Footnote 2 of the Supreme Court’s opinion provides some insight into the Justice Department’s motivations, which noted a government “financial stake” in the forfeiture “apparent from a 1990 memo.”

In this memo, the Attorney General urged U.S. attorneys “to increase the volume of forfeitures in order to meet the Department of Justice’s annual budget target.”

Yes, this means that the Justice Department tried to seize Good’s home because it needed the cash.

While it may be extremely disquieting to think that government actors may attempt to seize private property simply for financial gain, we are fortunate enough to have a judiciary that is constitutionally-enabled to prevent these sorts of abuses from occurring – which is exactly what happened in Good.