United States v. Ursery
Annotate this Case
518 U.S. 267 (1996)
OCTOBER TERM, 1995
UNITED STATES v. URSERY
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
No. 95-345. Argued April 17, 1996-Decided June 24,1996*
In No. 95-345, the Government instituted civil forfeiture proceedings under 21 U. S. C. § 881 (a)(7) against respondent Ursery's house, alleging that it had been used to facilitate illegal drug transactions. Shortly before Ursery settled that claim, he was indicted, and was later convicted, of manufacturing marijuana in violation of §841(a)(I). In No. 95-346, the Government filed a civil in rem complaint against various property seized from, or titled to, respondents Arlt and Wren or Arlt's corporation, alleging that each item was subject to forfeiture under 18 U. S. C. § 981(a)(I)(A) because it was involved in money laundering violative of § 1956, and to forfeiture under 21 U. S. C. § 881(a)(6) as the proceeds of a felonious drug transaction. Litigation of the forfeiture action was deferred while Arlt and Wren were prosecuted on drug and moneylaundering charges under § 846 and 18 U. S. C. §§ 371 and 1956. After their convictions, the District Court granted the Government's motion for summary judgment in the forfeiture proceeding. The Courts of Appeals reversed Ursery's conviction and the forfeiture judgment against Arlt and Wren, holding that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits the Government from both punishing a defendant for a criminal offense and forfeiting his property for that same offense in a separate civil proceeding. The courts reasoned in part that United States v. Halper, 490 U. S. 435, and Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. 602, meant that, as a categorical matter, civil forfeitures always constitute "punishment" for double jeopardy purposes. This Court consolidated the cases.
Held: In rem civil forfeitures are neither "punishment" nor criminal for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Pp. 273-292.
(a) Congress long has authorized the Government to bring parallel criminal actions and in rem civil forfeiture proceedings based upon the same underlying events, see, e. g., The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1, 14-15, and this Court consistently has concluded that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply to such forfeitures because they do not impose punishment, see, e. g., Various Items of Personal Property v. United States,
*Together with No. 95-346, United States v. $405,089.23 in United States Currency et al., on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
282 U. S. 577, 581; One Lot Emerald Cut Stones v. United States, 409 U. S. 232, 235-236 (per curiam). In its most recent case, United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms, 465 U. S. 354, the Court held that a forfeiture was not barred by a prior criminal proceeding after applying a two-part test asking, first, whether Congress intended the particular forfeiture to be a remedial civil sanction or a criminal penalty, and, second, whether the forfeiture proceedings are so punitive in fact as to establish that they may not legitimately be viewed as civil in nature, despite any congressional intent to establish a civil remedial mechanism. Pp.274-278.
(b) Though the 89 Firearms test was more refined, perhaps, than the Court's Various Items analysis, the conclusion was the same in each case: In rem civil forfeiture is a remedial civil sanction, distinct from potentially punitive in personam civil penalties such as fines, and does not constitute a punishment for double jeopardy purposes. See Gore v. United States, 357 U. S. 386, 392. The Courts of Appeals misread Halper, Austin, and Department of Revenue of Mont. v. Kurth Ranch, 511 U. S. 767, as having abandoned this oft-affirmed rule. None of those decisions purported to overrule Various Items, Emerald Cut Stones, and 89 Firearms or to replace the Court's traditional understanding. It would have been remarkable for the Court both to have held unconstitutional a well-established practice, and to have overruled a long line of precedent, without having even suggested that it was doing so. Moreover, the cases in question did not deal with the subject of these cases: in rem civil forfeitures for double jeopardy purposes. Halper involved in personam civil penalties under the Double Jeopardy Clause. Kurth Ranch considered a punitive state tax imposed on marijuana under that Clause. And Austin dealt with civil forfeitures under the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause. Pp. 278-288.
(c) The forfeitures at issue are civil proceedings under the two-part 89 Firearms test. First, there is little doubt that Congress intended proceedings under §§ 881 and 981 to be civil, since those statutes' procedural enforcement mechanisms are themselves distinctly civil in nature. See, e. g., 89 Firearms, 465 U. S., at 363. Second, there is little evidence, much less the "clearest proof" that the Court requires, see, e. g., id., at 365, suggesting that forfeiture proceedings under those sections are so punitive in form and effect as to render them criminal despite Congress' intent to the contrary. These statutes are, in most significant respects, indistinguishable from those reviewed, and held not to be punitive, in Various Items, Emerald Cut Stones, and 89 Firearms. That these are civil proceedings is also supported by other factors that the Court has found persuasive, including the considerations that (1) in rem civil forfeiture has not historically been regarded as punishment; (2)
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