News Release ~ 04/04/1996

Supreme Court's Decision Will Spur Forfeiture Reform

Bennis v. Michigan

Washington, DC (March 4, 1996) -- "The Supreme Court today did more to advance the cause of forfeiture reform than all of the advocacy campaigns of the past several years combined," declared Robert Fogelnest, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), reacting to the Court's 5-4 decision today in Bennis v. Michigan.

Fogelnest, a prominent New York City defense attorney, said he was "incredulous" that the Court would let stand the forfeiture of Tina Bennis' car. The State of Michigan seized the car because Bennis' husband used it to pick up a prostitute. All parties in the case agreed that Mrs. Bennis neither knew of nor consented to her husband's use of the family car for that purpose.

"The main practical effect of this decision will be to encourage legislative reform of state and federal forfeiture laws," Fogelnest predicted. "If the Court can tell the American people that it's O.K., under the Constitution, for the government to take property from innocent owners," he explained, "we're going to see a stampede to the legislatures to rein in forfeiture laws."

Fogelnest also criticized the Court's reasoning.

"This five-justice majority ignored the evolving law that underlies its own recent decisions in forfeiture cases," he said. "It took a sharp step backward by refusing to acknowledge that Mrs. Bennis met the test described in the 1974 case (Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co.); she did all she could reasonably have been expected to do to prevent the misuse of her property. The majority rationalizes this by claiming that it is bound by older decisions -- decisions which themselves complained of being forced to reach unfair results based on adherence to earlier precedents."

"The Court utterly shirked its responsibility to continue the necessary work of bringing forfeiture law, with its ancient origins, into conformity with modern notions of fairness and constitutional liberty," Fogelnest observed.

Through its Forfeiture Abuse Task Force, NACDL has filed amicus curiae briefs in several of the Court's recent forfeiture cases.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 10,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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