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Will U.S. Supreme Court rein in states' asset forfeiture powers?

Should he have sold a described "small amount of heroin" to undercover police officers?

Obviously not. That transgression yielded a year of home detention and various fines for an offense involving a $400 sale of an illegal drug.

It also resulted in the seizure of that individual's sole mode of transportation, a Land Rover worth an estimated $42,000.

Case commentators have questioned the legitimacy of that seizure, carried out by officials in one state pursuant to their cited powers under the long-established American legal doctrine of civil asset forfeiture.

Understandably, critics have zeroed in on proportionality in their lambasting of a law that permits the confiscation of property valued far in excess of dollar amounts tied to an attendant criminal offense. In the above matter, the convicted offender was forced to surrender an asset worth more than 100 times the amount involved in his conceded minor drug transaction.

That raises a fundamental fairness issue, which was squarely spotlighted by a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices in recent oral arguments involving the heroin/Land Rover Case. The nation's highest judicial tribunal will ultimately issue a definitive ruling in the matter, determining whether the state taking was constitutionally permissible or, rather, a grossly disproportionate punishment.

Some comments from the court during attorney arguments pointed clearly toward a disinclination to broadly favor the doctrine. We noted in our December 19 blog post at Frank, Juengel & Radefeld that asset forfeiture unsurprisingly "is and always has been controversial across the country."

Chief Justice John Roberts noted, for instance, a "well-established" distinction between authorities confiscating assets directly tied to criminal behavior and the taking of high-value property not clearly linked with wrongdoing.

The court's decision on asset forfeiture will obviously be important, as are all its rulings. We will timely pass along the outcome and key details to readers as soon as they are announced.

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