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Forfeiture: Courts Split on Definition of Excessive Punishment


November 1994

Two recent court rulings have found different ways to interpret the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that civil forfeitures are fines when making a determination of the excessiveness of punishment ("Courts Devise Competing Tests for Weighing Forfeitures Under Excessive Fines Clause," 56 CrL 1045, Oct. 19, 1994).

In Austin v. U.S. (U.S. SupCt., 53 CrL 2274, No. 92-6073, June 28, 1993), the Supreme Court called for lower courts to define what the gauge for excessiveness should be. Thus far, two courts have ruled on the matter.

The first ruling used the "instrumentality" of the property to the crime. In U.S. v. Chandler (Real Property Known as Tract 1 of Three Rivers Farm) (CA4, No. 93-2064, Sept. 27, 1994), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the only standard in determining if the forfeiture was excessive punishment is how close the property was to the offense in question. The court looked to the intent of federal legislators in drafting drug forfeiture provisions, finding that they did not intend for punishments to be exacted in dollar amounts but in terms of whether the property was involved in the offense.

In another ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court chose to adopt a "proportionality" standard for drug forfeitures. The court ruled that other courts should look first at the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the punishment in relation to the crime. Secondarily, courts should look at how involved the property was in the offense (Waller v. 1989 Ford F350 Truck (Kusumoto), Ill. SupCt., No. 76405, Sept. 29, 1994).