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Bennis v. Michigan

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Brief Fact Summary. A husband used a car he jointly owned with his wife to have sex with a prostitute. The government seeks forfeiture of the car.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. An owner’s interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which to property is put even though the owner did not know how her property was being used.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The real syllabus of the passage quoted is, that a process of law, which is not otherwise forbidden, must be taken to be due process of law, if it can show the sanction of settled usage both in England and in this country; but it by no means follows that nothing else can be due process of law.

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Facts. Tina Bennis (Petitioner) jointly owned a car with her husband. The police arrested him after observing him having sex with a prostitute in their car. An indecency law states that the government can seek forfeiture of property that is a public nuisance. The government sought to declare the car a public nuisance.

Issue. If an owner of property does not know how her property is being used by another, can the owner’s interest still be forfeited?

Held. Yes.
A long line of cases holds that an owner’s interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which to property is put even though the owner did not know how her property was being used.
Forfeiture of property prevents further illicit use in two ways. It prevents further illicit use of the property and renders the illegal behavior unprofitable by imposing an economic penalty.
The government is not 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. Thus, there was no taking that required compensation.
Petitioner’s automobile facilitated and was used in criminal activity. The state sought to deter illegal activity, and they rightly do so by subjecting the car to forfeiture.

(Justice John Paul Stevens) Petitioner has no responsibility for her husband’s act. An innocent person is being punished. No deterrent function will be served by taking her car. She did not entrust her car to her husband; they owned it jointly. She did not know he planned to use it wrongfully. The seizure constituted an arbitrary deprecation of property.
(Justice Anthony Kennedy) The forfeiture does not comply with due process. Petitioner was not negligent or complacent, so her car should not be taken away from her.
(Justice Clarence Thomas) Forfeiture of property without proof of the owner’s wrongdoing, merely because it was used in or was an instrument in the crime has long been permitted in this country.
(Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) The statute is used to deter others from using cars they own or co-own to contribute to neighborhood blight.

Discussion. When property is jointly owned, it will still be subject to forfeiture for the wrongdoing of one party, even if the other owner had no idea that something illegal took place. While this may seem unfair, the purpose is to deter criminal activity.

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