Good, United States v.

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510 U.S. 43 (1993), argued 6 Oct. 1993, decided 13 Dec. 1993 by vote of 5 to 4; Kennedy for the Court, Rehnquist, Thomas, Scalia, and O’Connor in dissent. The Good decision stemmed directly from the United States government's so-called war on drugs. Federal officials attempted to stem the drug trade by seizing the property of suspected drug dealers, declaring it forfeit to the United States, and then selling it at auction. Between 1984 and 1992 the Department of Justice seized a total of $1.9 billion in property, while seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration doubled between 1986 and 1992, rising to $856 million in the latter year. For more than a century, such proceedings had been carried out under the guise of the Fourth Amendment's requirement that civil forfeitures be executed through arrest warrants based on probable cause that the goods were subject to seizure. There was no requirement that the individual whose goods were to be seized had a right to a hearing before they were taken.

Hawaii police officers in January 1985 executed a search warrant against the home of James Daniel Good. The search uncovered about eighty-nine pounds of marijuana, marijuana seeds, and related drug paraphernalia. Good eventually pleaded guilty, received a one-year jail sentence, and forfeited to the state of Hawaii about $3,000 in cash found on the premises.

Four and one-half years later federal officials won from a federal magistrate a warrant to seize Good's house and the four acres of ground on which it was situated. The government acted without ever informing Good; federal agents showed up and took possession of the home and grounds. Good charged that such an action took his property without due process of law, in contravention of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and that, in any case, the action by the government was invalid because it had not been timely, coming as it did four and one-half years after his conviction in a Hawaiian court. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the federal magistrate's action, holding that the government had failed to provide proper notice and a hearing for Good and that, while the action fell within the five-year period for seizure outlined in federal law, the government had failed to follow the required internal notifications and reporting requirements.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion affirmed the due process ruling by the court of appeals but rejected the timeliness requirements. The majority distinguished between real and personal property, of which the former was immobile but the latter was subject to removal if not seized promptly. As Justice Kennedy put it, “real property cannot abscond” (p. 57). The justices also held that in the case of real property the simple issuance of a warrant by a magistrate was not sufficient due process, since these proceedings, at which the person whose property was to be seized was not present, created an unacceptable risk of error and afforded little or no protection to an innocent owner. When seizing real property, therefore, the federal government had to provide a hearing that would give suspects the opportunity to argue that it was not obtained through illegal means or that its value was much greater than the amount of illegally obtained profit. At the same time, the Court overturned the other part of the court of appeals ruling, holding that the government had only to file an action within the five-year period and that internal timing requirements could be completed later.


Subjects: Law.

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