Bennis v. Michigan

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516 U.S. 442 (1996), argued 29 Nov. 1995, decided 4 Mar. 1996 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Kennedy in dissent. State and federal governments had enacted a wide range of forfeiture statutes designed to help combat narcotics and other pervasive offenses. Such statutes were potent weapons and moneymakers for states and the federal government. Some of these statutes, as was true with the 1925 Michigan antinuisance law, often had as much of an impact on an innocent owner as they did on the guilty parties. The Michigan statute explicitly provided that an owner need not have known or consented to illegal use of the property. In these cases of forfeiture, landlords, plane and boat lessors, mortgagees and lienholders, and various co-owners could claim that illegally used property, which had become subject to forfeiture, occurred entirely without their knowledge or participation. The Bennis case drew the problem in the starkest possible terms.

Tina Bennis, of Detroit, Michigan, co-owned with her husband, John, a 1977 Pontiac that he used, once, to engage in oral sex with a prostitute in the front seat. He was convicted and the trial court ordered the car seized. The court refused to recognize the interest of Tina Bennis in the car, although the evidence was indisputable that she had no knowledge that her husband was engaged in sexual relations with a prostitute and that she had provided most of the funds to buy the car through baby-sitting and odd jobs. Although an intermediate appeals court overturned the decision, the Michigan Supreme Court sustained the trial court's action, noting that Michigan, unlike some other states, had not provided an “innocent-owner” defense and, therefore, no federal constitutional safeguard had been broken. Tina Bennis then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Bennis's attorney argued that confiscation of the car constituted a violation of her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment. Mrs. Bennis, her counsel insisted, could not prevent an illegal act of which she had no knowledge and that, in any case, the government should be allowed to take property of a joint owner only when it was clear that person was at least negligent in allowing it to be used unlawfully. Counsel for the state of Michigan, however, concluded that the state had an interest in protecting the safety, health, and morals of its citizens and that the owner of an automobile used for prostitution was strictly liable for that use and could not argue ignorance of the activity conducted in it. Bennis, the state of Michigan declared before the high court, had not taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent her husband's crime.

A sharply divided Supreme Court found in favor of the state of Michigan and the forfeiture. Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited a long line of cases that held that an owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which it was put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use. According to Rehnquist, accepting the notion that ignorance was a basis for Bennis to retain ownership would lead to a host of schemes where one owner would keep the other in ignorance in the hope that, should the activity be discovered, the property would not be lost. Moreover, since the state confiscated the automobile through a proper set of proceedings, Bennis could not make a claim either that she had been denied due process or that she deserved compensation for her one-half of the car. The government, Rehnquist concluded, was not required to compensate an owner for property that it lawfully acquired. If the residents of Michigan did not like the law, then they should alter it through the legislative process. As for Tina Bennis, she assumed all of the risks associated with marrying John in the first place. If there was a remedy for Tina, it was for John to pay back to her the one-half interest (about $300) lost when the car was forfeited.


Subjects: Law.

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