Bennis v. Michigan (94-8729), 517 U.S. 1163 (1996)
[ Thomas ]
[ Stevens ]
[ Ginsburg ]
[ Kennedy ]
[ Rehnquist ]
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NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


No. 94-8729


on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of michigan

[March 4, 1996]

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. [n.1] The State then sued both Bennis and his wife, petitioner Tina B. Bennis, to have the car declared a public nuisance and abated as such under §§600.3801 [n.2] and 600.3825 [n.3] of Michigan's Compiled Laws.

Petitioner defended against the abatement of her interest in the car on the ground that, when she entrusted her husband to use the car, she did not know that he would use it to violate Michigan's indecency law. The Wayne County Circuit Court rejected this argument, declared the car a public nuisance, and ordered the car's abatement. In reaching this disposition, the trial court judge recognized the remedial discretion he had under Michigan's case law. App. 21. He took into account the couple's ownership of "another automobile," so they would not be left "without transportation." Id., at 25. He also mentioned his authority to order the payment of one half of the sale proceeds, after the deduction of costs, to "the innocent co title holder." Id., at 21. He declined to order such a division of sale proceeds in this case because of the age and value of the car (an 11 year old Pontiac sedan recently purchased by John and Tina Bennis for $600); he commented in this regard: "[T]here's practically nothing left minus costs in a situation such as this." Id., at 25.

The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, holding that regardless of the language of Michigan Compiled Law §600.3815(2), [n.4] Michigan Supreme Court precedent interpreting this section prevented the State from abating petitioner's interest absent proof that she knew to what end the car would be used. Alternatively, the intermediate appellate court ruled that the conduct in question did not qualify as a public nuisance because only one occurrence was shown and there was no evidence of payment for the sexual act. 200 Mich. App. 670, 504 N. W. 2d 731 (1993).

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the abatement in its entirety. 447 Mich. 719, 527 N. W. 2d 483 (1994). It concluded as a matter of state law that the episode in the Bennis vehicle was an abatable nuisance. Rejecting the Court of Appeals' interpretation of §600.3815(2), the court then announced that, in order to abate an owner's interest in a vehicle, Michigan does not need to prove that the owner knew or agreed that her vehicle would be used in a manner proscribed by §600.3801 when she entrusted it to another user. Id., at 737, 527 N. W. 2d, at 492. The court next addressed petitioner's federal constitutional challenges to the State's abatement scheme: The court assumed that petitioner did not know of or consent to the misuse of the Bennis car, and concluded in light of our decisions in Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U.S. 465(1926), and Calero Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974), that Michigan's failure to provide an innocent owner defense was "without constitutional consequence." 447 Mich., at 740-741, 527 N. W. 2d, at 493-494. The Michigan Supreme Court specifically noted that, in its view, an owner's interest may not be abated when "a vehicle is used without the owner's consent." Id., at 742, n. 36, 527 N. W. 2d, at 495, n. 36. Furthermore, the court confirmed the trial court's description of the nuisance abatement proceeding as an "equitable action," and considered it "critical" that the trial judge so comprehended the statute. Id., at 742, 527 N. W. 2d, at 495.

We granted certiorari in order to determine whether Michigan's abatement scheme has deprived petitioner of her interest in the forfeited car without due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, or has taken her interest for public use without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment. 515 U. S. ___ (1995). We affirm.

The gravamen of petitioner's due process claim is not that she was denied notice or an opportunity to contest the abatement of her car; she was accorded both. Compare United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U. S. ___ (1993). Rather, she claims she was entitled to contest the abatement by showing she did not know her husband would use it to violate Michigan's indecency law. But a long and unbroken line of cases holds 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.

Our earliest opinion to this effect is Justice Story's opinion for the Court in The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1 (1827). The Palmyra, which had been commissioned as a privateer by the King of Spain and had attacked a United States vessel, was captured by a United States war ship and brought into Charleston, South Carolina, for adjudication. Id., at 8. On the Government's appeal from the Circuit Court's acquittal of the vessel, it was contended by the owner that the vessel could not be forfeited until he was convicted for the privateering. The Court rejected this contention, explaining: "The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing." Id., at 14. In another admiralty forfeiture decision 17 years later, Justice Story wrote for the Court that in in rem admiralty proceedings "the acts of the master and crew . . . bind the interest of the owner of the ship, whether he be innocent or guilty; and he impliedly submits to whatever the law denounces as a forfeiture attached to the ship by reason of their unlawful or wanton wrongs." Harmony v. United States, 2 How. 210, 234 (1844) (emphasis added).

In Dobbins's Distillery v. United States, 96 U.S. 395, 401 (1878), this Court upheld the forfeiture of property used by a lessee in fraudulently avoiding federal alcohol taxes, observing: "Cases often arise where the property of the owner is forfeited on account of the fraud, neglect, or misconduct of those intrusted with its possession, care, and custody, even when the owner is otherwise without fault . . . and it has always been held . . . that the acts of [the possessors] bind the interest of the owner . . . whether he be innocent or guilty."

In Van Oster v. Kansas, 272 U.S. 465 (1926), this Court upheld the forfeiture of a purchaser's interest in a car misused by the seller. Van Oster purchased an automobile from a dealer but agreed that the dealer might retain possession for use in its business. The dealer allowed an associate to use the automobile, and the associate used it for the illegal transportation of intoxicating liquor. Id., at 465-466. The State brought a forfeiture action pursuant to a Kansas statute, and Van Oster defended on the ground that the transportation of the liquor in the car was without her knowledge or authority. This Court rejected Van Oster's claim:

"It is not unknown or indeed uncommon for the law to visit upon the owner of property the unpleasant consequences of the unauthorized action of one to whom he has entrusted it. Much of the jurisdiction in admiralty, so much of the statute and common law of liens as enables a mere bailee to subject the bailed property to a lien, the power of a vendor of chattels in possession to sell and convey good title to a stranger, are familiar examples. . . . They suggest that certain uses of property may be regarded as so undesirable that the owner surrenders his control at his peril. . . .

"It has long been settled that statutory forfeitures of property entrusted by the innocent owner or lienor to another who uses it in violation of the revenue laws of the United States is not a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment." Id., at 467-468.

The Van Oster Court relied on J. W. Goldsmith, Jr. Grant Co. v. United States, 254 U.S. 505 (1921), in which the Court upheld the forfeiture of a seller's interest in a car misused by the purchaser. The automobile was forfeited after the purchaser transported bootleg distilled spirits in it, and the selling dealership lost the title retained as security for unpaid purchase money. Id., at 508-509. The Court discussed the arguments for and against allowing the forfeiture of the interest of an owner who was "without guilt," id., at 510, and concluded that "whether the reason for [the challenged forfeiture scheme] be artificial or real, it is too firmly fixed in the punitive and remedial jurisprudence of the country to be now displaced," id., at 511. [n.5]

In Calero Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974), the most recent decision on point, the Court reviewed the same cases discussed above, and concluded that "the innocence of the owner of property subject to forfeiture has almost uniformly been rejected as a defense." Id., at 683. Petitioner is in the same position as the various owners involved in the forfeiture cases beginning with The Palmyra in 1827. She did not know that her car would be used in an illegal activity that would subject it to forfeiture. But under these cases the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect her interest against forfeiture by the government.

Petitioner relies on a passage from Calero Toledo, that "it would be difficult to reject the constitutional claim of . . . an owner who proved not only that he was uninvolved in and unaware of the wrongful activity, but also that he had done all that reasonably could be expected to prevent the proscribed use of his property." 416 U. S., at 689. But she concedes that this comment was obiter dictum, and "[i]t is to the holdings of our cases, rather than their dicta, that we must attend." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U. S. ___, ___ (1994) (slip op., at 4). And the holding of Calero Toledo on this point was that the interest of a yacht rental company in one of its leased yachts could be forfeited because of its use for transportation of controlled substances, even though the company was " `in no way . . . involved in the criminal enterprise carried on by [the] lessee' and `had no knowledge that its property was being used in connection with or in violation of [Puerto Rican Law].' " 416 U. S., at 668. Petitioner has made no showing beyond that here.

The dissent argues that our cases treat contraband differently from instrumentalities used to convey contraband, like cars: Objects in the former class are forfeitable "however blameless or unknowing their owners may be," post, at 2, but with respect to an instrumentality in the latter class, an owner's innocence is no defense only to the "principal use being made of that property," id., at 4. However, this Court's precedent has never made the due process inquiry depend on whether the use for which the instrumentality was forfeited was the principal use. If it had, perhaps cases like Calero Toledo, in which Justice Douglas noted in dissent that there was no showing that the "yacht had been notoriously used in smuggling drugs . . . and so far as we know only one marihuana cigarette was found on the yacht," 416 U. S., at 693 (opinion dissenting in part), might have been decided differently.

The dissent also suggests that The Palmyra line of cases "would justify the confiscation of an ocean liner just because one of its passengers sinned while on board." Post, at 5. None of our cases have held that an ocean liner may be confiscated because of the activities of one passenger. We said in Goldsmith Grant, and we repeat here, that "[w]hen such application shall be made it will be time enough to pronounce upon it." 254 U. S., at 512.

Notwithstanding this well established authority rejecting the innocent owner defense, petitioner argues that we should in effect overrule it by importing a culpability requirement from cases having at best a tangential relation to the "innocent owner" doctrine in forfeiture cases. She cites Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71 (1992), for the proposition that a criminal defendant may not be punished for a crime if he is found to be not guilty. She also argues that our holding in Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. ___ (1993), that the Excessive Fines Clause [n.6] limits the scope of civil forfeiture judgments, "would be difficult to reconcile with any rule allowing truly innocent persons to be punished by civil forfeiture." Brief for Petitioner 18-19, n. 12.

In Foucha the Court held that a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity in a criminal trial could not be thereafter confined indefinitely by the State without a showing that he was either dangerous or mentally ill. Petitioner argues that our statement that in those circumstances a State has no "punitive interest" which would justify continued detention, 504 U. S., at 80, requires that Michigan demonstrate a punitive interest in depriving her of her interest in the forfeited car. But, putting aside the extent to which a forfeiture proceeding is "punishment" in the first place, Foucha did not purport to discuss, let alone overrule, The Palmyra line of cases.

In Austin, the Court held that because "forfeiture serves, at least in part, to punish the owner," forfeiture proceedings are subject to the limitations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines. 509 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 15). There was no occasion in that case to deal with the validity of the "innocent owner defense," other than to point out that if a forfeiture statute allows such a defense, the defense is additional evidence that the statute itself is "punitive" in motive. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 14-15). In this case, however, Michigan's Supreme Court emphasized with respect to the forfeiture proceeding at issue: "It is not contested that this is an equitable action," in which the trial judge has discretion to consider "alternatives [to] abating the entire interest in the vehicle." 447 Mich., at 742, 527 N. W. 2d, at 495.

In any event, for the reasons pointed out in Calero Toledo and Van Oster, forfeiture also serves a deterrent purpose distinct from any punitive purpose. Forfeiture of property prevents illegal uses "both by preventing further illicit use of the [property] and by imposing an economic penalty, thereby rendering illegal behavior unprofitable." Calero Toledo, supra, at 687. This deterrent mechanism is hardly unique to forfeiture. For instance, because Michigan also deters dangerous driving by making a motor vehicle owner liable for the negligent operation of the vehicle by a driver who had the owner's consent to use it, petitioner was also potentially liable for her husband's use of the car in violation of Michigan negligence law. Mich. Comp. Laws. Ann. §257.401 (1990). "The law thus builds a secondary defense against a forbidden use and precludes evasions by dispensing with the necessity of judicial inquiry as to collusion between the wrongdoer and the alleged innocent owner." Van Oster, 272 U. S., at 467-468.

Petitioner also claims that the forfeiture in this case was a taking of private property for public use in violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. But if the forfeiture proceeding here in question did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the property in the automobile was transferred by virtue of that proceeding from petitioner 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. United States v. Fuller, 409 U.S. 488, 492 (1973); see United States v. Rands, 389 U.S. 121, 125 (1967).

At bottom, petitioner's claims depend on an argument that the Michigan forfeiture statute is unfair because it relieves prosecutors from the burden of separating co owners who are complicit in the wrongful use of property from innocent co owners. This argument, in the abstract, has considerable appeal, as we acknowledged in Goldsmith Grant, 254 U. S., at 510. Its force is reduced in the instant case, however, by the Michigan Supreme Court's confirmation of the trial court's remedial discretion, see supra, at 4, and petitioner's recognition that Michigan may forfeit her and her husband's car whether or not she is entitled to an offset for her interest in it, Tr. of Oral Arg. 7, 9.

We conclude today, as we concluded 75 years ago, that the cases authorizing actions of the kind at issue are "too firmly fixed in the punitive and remedial jurisprudence of the country to be now displaced." Goldsmith Grant, supra, at 511. The State here sought to deter illegal activity that contributes to neighborhood deterioration and unsafe streets. The Bennis automobile, it is conceded, facilitated and was used in criminal activity. Both the trial court and the Michigan Supreme Court followed our longstanding practice, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Michigan is therefore



1 Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §750.338b (1991).

2 Section 600.3801 states in pertinent part:

"Any building, vehicle, boat, aircraft, or place used for the purpose of lewdness, assignation or prostitution or gambling, or used by, or kept for the use of prostitutes or other disorderly persons, . . . is declared a nuisance, . . . and all . . . nuisances shall be enjoined and abated as provided in this act and as provided in the court rules.

Any person or his or her servant, agent, or employee who owns, leases, conducts, or maintains any building, vehicle, or place used for any of the purposes or acts set forth in this section is guilty of a nuisance." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §600.3801 (Supp. 1995).

3 Section 600.3825 states in pertinent part:

"(1) Order of abatement. If the existence of the nuisance is established in an action as provided in this chapter, an order of abatement shall be entered as a part of the judgment in the case, which order shall direct the removal from the building or place of all furniture, fixtures and contents therein and shall direct the sale thereof in the manner provided for the sale of chattels under execution . . . .

"(2) Vehicles, sale. Any vehicle, boat, or aircraft found by the court to be a nuisance within the meaning of this chapter, is subject to the same order and judgment as any furniture, fixtures and contents as herein provided.

"(3) Sale of personalty, costs, liens, balance to state treasurer. Upon the sale of any furniture, fixture, contents, vehicle, boat or aircraft as provided in this section, the officer executing the order of the court shall, after deducting the expenses of keeping such property and costs of such sale, pay all liens according to their priorities . . . , and shall pay the balance to the state treasurer to be credited to the general fund of the state. . . ." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §600.3825 (1987).

4 "Proof of knowledge of the existence of the nuisance on the part of the defendants or any of them, is not required." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §600.3815(2) (1987).

5 In Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. ___, ___ (1993) (slip op., at 14), the Court observed that J. W. Goldsmith Jr. Grant Co. v. United States, 254 U.S. 505 (1921) "expressly reserved the question whether the [guilty property] fiction could be employed to forfeit the property of a truly innocent owner." This observation is quite mistaken. The Goldsmith Grant Court expressly reserved opinion "as to whether the section can be extended to property stolen from the owner or otherwise taken from him without his privity or consent." Id., at 512 (emphases added). In other words, the Goldsmith Grant Court drew the very same distinction made by the Michigan Supreme Court in this case: "the distinction between the situation in which a vehicle is used without the owner's consent," and one in which, "although the owner consented to [another person's] use, [the vehicle] is used in a manner to which the owner did not consent." 447 Mich., at 742, n. 36, 527 N. W. 2d, at 495, n. 36. Because John Bennis co owned the car at issue, petitioner cannot claim she was in the former situation.

The dissent, post, at 8-9, and n. 9, quoting Peisch v. Ware, 4 Cranch 347, 364 (1808), seeks to enlarge the reservation in Goldsmith Grant into a general principle that " `a forfeiture can only be applied to those cases in which the means that are prescribed for the prevention of a forfeiture may be employed.' " But Peisch was dealing with the same question reserved in Goldsmith Grant, not any broader proposition: "If, by private theft, or open robbery, without any fault on his part, [an owner's] property should be invaded, . . . the law cannot be understood to punish him with the forfeiture of that property." Peisch, supra, at 364.

6 U. S. Const., Amdt. 8.