Major Constitutional Issues With Forfeiture Laws in Minnesota

Does a particular forfeiture violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against excessive fines?

Three significant rulings have been issued by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning whether a particular property forfeiture violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines” when its value is disproportionate to the seriousness of criminal activity on which it is based.

In 1993, the Court ruled that there are constitutional limits on the value of property that may be subject to either criminal in personam or civil in rem forfeiture due to its having been used to commit or facilitate the commission of a crime. Regardless of whether the forfeiture provision is characterized as a criminal penalty (like the racketeering forfeiture provision) or as a civil remedial remedy (like the general forfeiture law), its purpose in both contexts is to serve as a penalty for criminal behavior and, as such, it is subject to the limitations imposed by the “Excessive Fines Clause” of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court, therefore, remanded both cases to the courts of appeal from which they came, with instructions to determine whether the forfeitures in the two cases were unconstitutionally excessive in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993); Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544 (1993).

In the Austin and Alexander cases, the Court declined to articulate an analytical, constitutional test for determining whether a particular fine or forfeiture is excessive, leaving that task to the lower courts. In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia indicated some sympathy for a more relaxed “excessiveness” inquiry in civil forfeiture cases than in criminal ones; but the majority opinion declined to endorse his analysis or otherwise influence the future decisions of the lower courts on this matter.

In 1998, the Court ruled for the first time that the government’s forfeiture of a particular sum of money in an in personam forfeiture proceeding did, in fact, violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

In this case, the government forfeited $357,144 from the defendant because he had unlawfully failed to report to customs officials that he was carrying the money at the time he boarded an international flight. The Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that because the defendant’s offense was “solely a reporting offense” and involved minimal culpability or harm, the forfeiture of this large sum of currency was unconstitutional because it was “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of the offense. This “grossly disproportional” standard, the Court stated, is the proper one to use in deciding excessive fine inquiries under the Eighth Amendment because it gives adequate deference to legislative judgments concerning the appropriate level of punishment, and it recognizes the “inherent imprecision” of any judicial determination regarding the gravity of particular criminal offenses. United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998).

Minnesota’s appellate courts look to the “grossly disproportional” test articulated in U.S. v. Bajakajian to resolve Eighth Amendment challenges to civil forfeitures.

In a 2000 case involving a challenge to court-imposed fines and surcharges, the Minnesota Supreme Court looked to the U.S. Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Bajakajian, for guidance in applying the Excessive Fines Clause. State v. Rewitzer, 617 N.W.2d 407 (Minn. 2000). In Bajakajian, the Supreme Court held that a fine is unconstitutional if it is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense and adopted the standard of gross disproportionality articulated in Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983). The Solem court looked at three factors when considering proportionality: (1) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (2) comparison of the contested fine with fines imposed for the commission of other crimes in the same jurisdiction; and (3) comparison of the contested fine with fines imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. Although the Rewitzer case involved criminal fines, Minnesota courts have applied the same analysis of the excessive fines clause in civil in rem forfeiture cases. See Miller v. One 2001 Pontiac Aztek, 669 N.W.2d 893 (Minn. 2003) (upholding forfeiture of a $16,000 vehicle for a first-degree DWI offense); City of New Brighton v. 2000 Ford Excursion, 622 N.W.2d 364 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001) (upholding forfeiture of $40,000 vehicle for a gross misdemeanor DWI offense); and Borgen v. 418 Eglon Avenue and $1,230.00, 712 N.W.2d 809 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (upholding forfeiture of defendant’s house and money as a result of a controlled substance offense).

Before Minnesota courts adopted the gross disproportionality standard, some courts had relied on the “instrumentality or nexus” test, which asks if the property bears a close relationship to the offense. See City of Worthington Police Dep’t v. One 1988 Chevrolet Berreta, 516 N.W.2d 581 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994). While the Minnesota Supreme Court since has rejected solely using the “instrumentality or nexus” test, it has stated that the courts may still use the test in conjunction with the gross-disproportionality test. Borgen, 712 N.W.2d at 812 (citing Miller v. One 2001 Pontiac Aztec, 669 N.W.3d 893, 897 n. 2 (Minn. 2003)).

Does a particular forfeiture violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against double jeopardy?

A significant ruling was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1996 concerning whether the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against “double jeopardy” is violated when the government seeks to convict an individual for engaging in criminal activity and, separately, to forfeit property resulting from or used in that same criminal activity.

The Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause is not violated when the government both punishes a defendant for a criminal offense and forfeits the defendant’s property for that same offense in a separate civil proceeding. In contrast to its analysis under the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause, the Court ruled that the forfeiture of property in a civil in rem proceeding does not constitute “punishment” for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The Court used a two-pronged test in reaching this result. First, it considered whether the legislature intended the forfeiture proceedings to be criminal or civil. The Court found that, in this case, Congress clearly intended the proceedings to be civil because it targeted the property itself rather than the property owner as the “guilty party,” and it provided distinctly civil procedures for conducting the proceedings. Second, the Court considered whether the forfeiture proceedings were so punitive in form or effect as to clearly render them criminal, despite Congress’ intent to the contrary. It found that, while the proceedings had certain punitive aspects, they also served important nonpunitive goals, such as deterring the illegal use of property and ensuring that no one profits from engaging in criminal activity. For these reasons, the Court ruled that civil in rem proceedings to forfeit either the proceeds of criminal activity or property used to commit criminal acts are neither punishment nor criminal for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause. United States v. Ursery, 518 U.S. 267 (1996).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ursery is consistent with recent forfeiture decisions of the Minnesota Court of Appeals concerning the double jeopardy issue.

In State v. Rosenfeld, 540 N.W.2d 915 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), decided six months before Ursery, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the authority of the state to prosecute the defendant for a drug crime after having civilly forfeited property representing instrumentalities and proceeds of the crime. The court ruled that the Double Jeopardy Clauses of neither the federal nor the state constitutions were violated by these actions because the forfeiture was rationally related to such remedial, nonpunitive goals as eliminating the means for engaging in future drug trafficking and reducing the financial incentive for drug dealing.

However, the court of appeals also ruled that when the state seeks to forfeit property that is merely “associated” with a crime, the forfeiture is subjected to closer scrutiny. To escape the limitations of the Double Jeopardy Clause, it must be shown either that the property being subjected to forfeiture was “proceeds” or “instrumentalities” of the crime, or that the forfeiture served some other remedial goal such as compensating the government for its costs in connection with the property owner’s criminal activity. See Freeman v. Residence Located at 1215 East 21st St., 552 N.W.2d 275 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996).

Similarly, in City of New Hope v. 1986 Mazda 626, 546 N.W.2d 300 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996), the Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of a motor vehicle forfeiture under the DWI forfeiture law. The court ruled that civil forfeiture of a motor vehicle used by a repeat DWI offender to commit a DWI offense is rationally related to the statute’s remedial purpose of protecting public safety and, therefore, is not punishment for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clauses of either the federal or state constitutions. Accord, City of Pine Springs v. One 1992 Harley Davidson, 555 N.W.2d 749 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996); see also Johnson v. 1996 GMC Sierra, 606 N.W.2d 455 (Minn. Ct. App. 2000), reviewed denied April 18, 2000; Hawes v. 1997 Jeep Wrangler, 602 N.W.2d 874 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999); Lukkason v. 1993 Chevrolet Extended Cab Pickup, 590 N.W.2d 803 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999), review denied May 18, 1999; City of New Brighton v. 2000 Ford Excursion, 622 N.W.2d 364 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001); Schug v. Nine Thousand Nine Hundred Sixteen Dollars & Fifty Cents in U.S. Currency, 669 N.W.2d 379 (Minn. Ct. App. 2003).

CREDIT: The content of this and any related posts was adopted or copied from the Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department’s publication, Minnesota’s Forfeiture Laws, written by legislative analyst Rebecca Pirius.

This post is also part of a series of posts on Minnesota’s Forfeiture Laws

9 A civil in rem forfeiture proceeding is a proceeding directed against “guilty property” instead of against a criminal offender. Technically speaking, it is separate from and independent of any criminal prosecution. In contrast, an in personam forfeiture penalty results from a criminal conviction and is imposed directly on an individual offender as punishment for criminal wrongdoing.