Bennis v. Michigan
516 U.S. 442 (1996)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1995

Syllabus

BENNIS v. MICHIGAN

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MICHIGAN

No. 94-8729. Argued November 29, 1995-Decided March 4,1996

Petitioner was a joint owner, with her husband, of an automobile in which her husband engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute. In declaring the automobile forfeit as a public nuisance under Michigan's statutory abatement scheme, the trial court permitted no offset for petitioner's interest, notwithstanding her lack of knowledge of her husband's activity. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, but was in turn reversed by the State Supreme Court, which concluded, inter alia, that Michigan's failure to provide an innocent-owner defense was without federal constitutional consequence under this Court's decisions.

Held: The forfeiture order did not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 446-453.

(a) Michigan's abatement scheme has not deprived petitioner of her interest in the forfeited car without due process. Her claim that she was entitled to contest the abatement by showing that she did not know that her husband would use the car to violate state law is defeated by a long and unbroken line of cases in which this Court has held that an owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use. See, e. g., Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U. S. 465,467-468, and Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U. S. 663, 668, 683; Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U. S. 71, 80, and Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. 602, 617-618, distinguished. These cases are too firmly fixed in the country's punitive and remedial jurisprudence to be now displaced. Cf. J. W Goldsmith, Jr.-Grant Co. v. United States, 254 U. S. 505, 511. pp.446-452.

(b) Michigan's abatement scheme has not taken petitioner's property for public use without compensation. Because the forfeiture proceeding did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, her property in the automobile was transferred by virtue of that proceeding to the State. The government may not be 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. See, e. g., United States v. Fuller, 409 U. S. 488, 492. Pp. 452-453.

447 Mich. 719, 527 N. W. 2d 483, affirmed.


443

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., post, p. 453, and GINSBURG, J., post, p. 457, filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 458. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 472.

Stefan B. Herpel argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Larry L. Roberts argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were John D. O'Hair and George E. Ward.

Richard H. Seamon argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben.*

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was a joint owner, with her husband, of an automobile in which her husband engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute. A Michigan court ordered the automobile forfeited as a public nuisance, with no offset for her interest, notwithstanding her lack of knowledge of her husband's activity. We hold that the Michigan court order did not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Detroit police arrested John Bennis after observing him engaged in a sexual act with a prostitute in the automobile while it was parked on a Detroit city street. Bennis was convicted of gross indecency.l The State then sued both

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Bankers Association by John J. Gill III and Michael F. Crotty; for the Institute for Justice by William H. Mellor III and Clint Bolick; and for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers by E. E. Edwards III and Richard J. Troberman.

Richard K. Willard and Robert Teir filed a brief of amicus curiae for the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities et al.

1 Mich. Compo Laws § 750.338b (1979).


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Full Text of Opinion

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