Honeycutt v. United States
581 US ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Terry managed sales and inventory for a Tennessee hardware store owned by his brother, Tony. They were indicted for federal drug crimes including conspiracy to distribute a product used in methamphetamine production. The government sought judgments of $269,751 against each brother, under the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes, 21 U.S.C. 853(a)(1). Tony pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000. Terry was convicted. Despite conceding that Terry had no controlling interest in the store and did not stand to benefit personally from sales of the product, the government asked the court to hold him jointly and severally liable for the profits from the illegal sales and sought a judgment of $69,751.98, the outstanding conspiracy profits. The Sixth Circuit agreed that the brothers, as co-conspirators, were jointly and severally liable. The Supreme Court reversed. Forfeiture under section 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime; the provision does not permit forfeiture with regard to Terry. Use of the adverbs “directly” and “indirectly” to refer to how a defendant obtains the property does not negate the requirement that he “obtain” it. Congress did not incorporate into the section the principle that conspirators are legally responsible for each other’s foreseeable actions in furtherance of their common plan.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Sonia Sotomayor)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

HONEYCUTT v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 16–142. Argued March 29, 2017—Decided June 5, 2017

Terry Honeycutt managed sales and inventory for a Tennessee hardware store owned by his brother, Tony Honeycutt. After they were indicted for federal drug crimes including conspiracy to distribute a product used in methamphetamine production, the Government sought judgments against each brother in the amount of $269,751.98 pursuant to the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act of 1984, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes, 21 U. S. C. §853(a)(1). Tony pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000. Terry went to trial and was convicted. Despite conceding that Terry had no controlling interest in the store and did not stand to benefit personally from the sales of the product, the Government asked the District Court to hold him jointly and severally liable for the profits from the illegal sales and sought a judgment of $69,751.98, the outstanding conspiracy profits. The District Court declined to enter a forfeiture judgment against Terry, reasoning that he was a salaried employee who had not received any profits from the sales. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the brothers, as co-conspirators, were jointly and severally liable for any conspiracy proceeds.

Held: Because forfeiture pursuant to §853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime, that provision does not permit forfeiture with regard to Terry Honeycutt, who had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the illegal sales. Pp. 3–11.

(a) Section 853(a) limits forfeiture to property flowing from, §853(a)(1), or used in, §853(a)(2), the crime itself—providing the first clue that the statute does not countenance joint and several liability, which would require forfeiture of untainted property. It also defines forfeitable property solely in terms of personal possession or use. Section 853(a)(1), the provision at issue, limits forfeiture to property the defendant “obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” the crime. Neither the dictionary definition nor the common usage of the word “obtain” supports the conclusion that an individual “obtains” property that was acquired by someone else. And the adverbs “directly” and “indirectly” refer to how a defendant obtains the property; they do not negate the requirement that he obtain it at all. Sections 853(a)(2) and 853(a)(3) are in accord with this reading. Pp. 3–7.

(b) Joint and several liability is also contrary to several other provisions of §853. Section 853(c), which applies to property “described in subsection (a),” applies to tainted property only. See Luis v. United States, 578 U. S. ___, ___. Section §853(e)(1) permits pretrial asset freezes to preserve the availability of property forfeitable under subsection (a), provided there is probable cause to think that a defendant has committed an offense triggering forfeiture and “the property at issue has the requisite connection to that crime.” Kaley v. United States, 571 U. S. ___, ___. Section 853(d) establishes a “rebuttable presumption” that property is subject to forfeiture only if the Government proves that the defendant acquired the property “during the period of the violation” and “there was no likely source for” the property but the crime. These provisions reinforce the statute’s application to tainted property acquired by the defendant and are thus incompatible with joint and several liability. Joint and several liability would also render futile §853(p)—the sole provision of §853 that permits the Government to confiscate property untainted by the crime. Pp. 7–9.

(c) The plain text and structure of §853 leave no doubt that Congress did not, as the Government claims, incorporate the principle that conspirators are legally responsible for each other’s foreseeable actions in furtherance of their common plan. See Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U. S. 640 . Congress provided just one way for the Government to recoup substitute property when the tainted property itself is unavailable—the procedures outlined in §853(p). And as is clear from its text and structure, §853 maintains traditional in rem forfeiture’s focus on tainted property unless one of §853(p)’s preconditions exists. Pp. 9–10.

816 F. 3d 362, reversed.

Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Gorsuch, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

A forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. 853(a)(1) must be limited to property that a defendant acquired as a result of a crime.

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