Bennis v. Michigan (1996)

The Facts

Tina and John Bennis split the cost of a $600 Pontiac. John, without Tina’s knowledge, used the Pontiac to solicit prostitutes and was arrested for gross indecency. Simultaneous with the criminal charges against John, the county prosecutor brought a forfeiture action against the Pontiac under a Michigan statute that allowed for the confiscation of property used for the purpose of “lewdness, assignation or prostitution.” At trial, Tina argued that because she was an innocent co-owner, the forfeiture of her interest in the car violated both the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forfeiture. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, relied upon long-standing precedent, finding 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.’” To get around the fact that Tina had done nothing wrong, Chief Justice Rehnquist explained that “forfeiture also serves a deterrent purpose distinct from any punitive purpose.” Chief Justice Rehnquist concluded that innocent property owners are not constitutionally guaranteed an “innocent owner” defense.

The Consequences

The Court’s ruling not only deprived Tina Bennis of her property but expanded the government’s already vast power to confiscate property. While Congress has taken some action to protect citizens against civil forfeiture and some of the states have beefed up their own asset forfeiture laws, constitutional rights should not have to depend upon legislative grace. A holding that the “innocent owner” defense was constitutionally required would have bound both the federal government and the states. Bennis’ blind imitation of the past left innocent people everywhere more vulnerable to policing for profit.