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June 5, 2017

Supreme Court unanimously limits reach of federal drug-offense forfeiture statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down a unanimous opinion in Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 (S. Ct. June 5, 2017) (available here), a case concerning the reach of the federal criminal forfeiture statute. The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Sotomayor, and it starts and ends this way:

A federal statute — 21 U.S.C. § 853 — mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes.  This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute’s text and structure....

Forfeiture pursuant to § 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.  In this case, the Government has conceded that Terry Honeycutt had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the Polar Pure sales.  App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.  The District Court agreed. Id., at 40a.  Because Honeycutt never obtained tainted property as a result of the crime, § 853 does not require any forfeiture.

The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.

June 5, 2017 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

Comments

This decision is correct. It is also what was countenanced in Article III as the job of the Supreme Court, to settle legal controversies, to fill the interstices within existing law, and not to write the laws.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 5, 2017 7:09:30 PM

This was the right result. However, what about the thousands of drug conspiracy co-defendants who were sentenced and saddled with enormous forfeiture judgments prior to this decision. What is the remedy? Or is there one?

Posted by: William Session | Jun 7, 2017 2:52:57 PM

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