The United States vs. Money?
March 22, 2009 4:21 PM   Subscribe

I was reading comments on Fark about an article where a man was pulled over and had $26,000 in his trunk and the money was confiscated but he was not charged. The merit of this is not what my question is about, it is about whether money (or property can be a defendant in a case).

Here is the comment from the thread:

That assumes honest, intelligent courts willing to apply the plain meaning of the constitution against law enforcement. It happens sometimes, but this is one of those areas where the courts have abandoned us to the thugs in uniform. Courts have repeatedly upheld this sort of thing on the perverse idea that property can be charged with a crime. Thus such absurd court cases as "United States v. $26,000" being allowed on the docket. Note that the owner of the $26,000 is not a party to the case.

Is this true? And can anyone give any examples? That comment really got me interested, I tried doing some searching but all the information I found was about recovering a settlement.
posted by thenuts to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The short answer is :yes.
Once the government establishes probable cause that the property is subject to forfeiture, the owner must prove on a "preponderance of the evidence" that it is not. The owner need not be judged guilty of any crime. In contrast, criminal forfeiture is usually carried out in a sentence following a conviction and is a punitive act against the offender. Since the government can choose the type of case, a civil case is almost always chosen. The costs of such cases is high for the owner, usually totaling around $10,000 and can take up to three years.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:25 PM on March 22, 2009

In some godforsaken places, this abhorrent "legal" maneuver has been practically institutionalized.
posted by Aquaman at 4:38 PM on March 22, 2009

Best answer: Yep. Happens all the time. It's called "jurisdiction in rem," from the Latin "in rem," meaning "in/towards a thing." This is how forfeiture proceedings happen and is distinguished from jurisdiction in personam," where a court asserts jurisdiction over a person. The two kinds of jurisdiction are co-extensive in their limits; the only difference is whether the court is asserting jurisdiction over a person or over a piece of property. The property can be real or personal.
posted by valkyryn at 4:40 PM on March 22, 2009

When used correctly, the purpose of forfeiture is to divest criminals of their ill-gotten gains. For example, a drug barron should not be allowed to keep his "earnings." It is a regulated by state or federal statute. It is not a "punitive act" since it simply restores society to its pre-crime status, i.e., the criminal no longer has the money he earned through his crimes. Forfeiture statutes are also used to dispossess individuals items used in criminal activity such as guns.
posted by inkyr2 at 4:45 PM on March 22, 2009

U. S. v. 422 Casks of Wine, 1 Pet. 547, 550, 7 L.Ed. 257 (1828).

(Case is not as interesting as the name.)
posted by applemeat at 4:47 PM on March 22, 2009

Yea, what valkyryn said: this is jurisdiction in rem. My favorite case name ever was an in rem case (United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, 241 U.S. 265 (1916)), but it's not uncommon. Forfeiture laws have become disturbingly overused recently.
posted by raf at 4:54 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, R.M.S. Titanic is also pretty good.
posted by grouse at 4:57 PM on March 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Others, found on a search at

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. $79,123.49 IN UNITED STATES CASH AND CURRENCY, Defendant. Appeal of Claimants Jan E. OSTERMEIER, Stotler & Company, Terrell D. Brown.
United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
September 28, 1987
830 F.2d 94

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. TWO TRACTS OF LAND IN CASCADE COUNTY, MONTANA; One Residence Located at 2109 Central Avenue West, Great Falls, Montana, et al., Defendants, Henry G. Garcia, Claimant-Appellant.
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
October 4, 1993
5 F.3d 1360

United States Supreme Court
November 22, 1926
47 S.Ct. 154; 272 U.S. 321; 71 L.Ed. 279

Most of the time, the owner of the property does not contest the forfeiture, because he cannot establish by the preponderance standard that he owns it legitimately.

Some of the very unfortunate cases are those in which the vehicle (or home, or whatever) is seized because it is being used to facilitate criminal activity, but without the knowledge or consent of the owner.
posted by megatherium at 5:02 PM on March 22, 2009

I've worked with a prosecutor in a case that involved a child molester's house. The molester was convicted and sentenced to jail long before I got involved. My client (the child) intervened in the in rem proceeding and acquired the house as part of his 'victim's compensation'. It was an interesting, if emotionally difficult, case.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 5:04 PM on March 22, 2009

Yea but in some of those cases cited above, its after a conviction. That seems just.

The Fark thread in question (and a previous story a week or two ago about a Texas town), was about the police just seizing large sums of money. If I'm driving home from a Casino where I won $50,000, I have a legitimate reason to be carrying that much cash (I don't think they cut checks, nor would I expect everyone to take a check). I can tell the cops that I won it at a casino, they can just choose not to believe me and still take the money, and I'd have to hire a lawyer and try to get it back, and the lawyer will take a cut of that $50,000 to get it back. Even worse, I'd have to pay taxes on that money out of my pocket even if the cops took it!
posted by SirOmega at 5:24 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am not a lawyer. I would imagine that in the casino example, a receipt from the casino would be enough to keep the cops from confiscating it.

Yeah, the police can trump up reasons to confiscate what they want, but that's what the court system is for. It sucks, but it's better than China.
posted by gjc at 7:55 PM on March 22, 2009

Now the in rem / in personam distinction is meaningless for like 99% of all cases. Purely in rem actions are used not only for seizing stuff from criminals but for seizing things that are a public safety hazard. Sometimes you'll see, like, US v. 500 tons beef if the beef is tainted or something.

It's funny that the quote from the question calls in rem jurisdiction absurd and perverse -- back in the day, that's how lawyers would have characterized getting rid of the in rem/in personam distinction.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:40 PM on March 22, 2009

SirOmega, with the scenario you described, you might be able to file a section 1983 civil rights action against the cops for violating your constitutional rights. I am not a lawyer (until I pass the bar this july) so I don't know if it would be successful, but it's the sort of thing they talk about in law school all the time. At the very least, you could probably get your legal fees back, though I'm not sure what your burden would be in showing the cops willfully took the money, knowing that you were actually entitled to it.
posted by Happydaz at 11:35 PM on March 22, 2009

I found this thread late, but if you're still reading, you might be interested in a four part series that was recently on NPR called Dirty Money: Asset Seizures and Forfeitures. It dealt primarily with suspected drug money confiscated on highways near the US/Mexico border, and went into the legal issues as well.
posted by everybody polka at 4:45 PM on March 26, 2009

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