Bennis v. Michigan

116 S. Ct. 994 (1996)



An owner's interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use.


Tina Bennis and her husband John Bennis were joint owners of an automobile in which John Bennis engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute. A Michigan court ordered the automobile forfeited as a public nuisance, with no offset for Tina Bennis’s interest, notwithstanding her lack of knowledge of her husband's activity. The Supreme Court held that the Michigan court order did not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, affirmed the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision.


Can the State forfeit a person’s automobile, even though that individual was not aware that the automobile was being used for illegal activities?




Statutory forfeitures of property entrusted by the innocent owner to another who uses it in violation of the revenue laws of the United States is not a violation of the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Forfeiture of property prevents illegal uses both by preventing further illicit use of the property and by imposing an economic penalty, thereby rendering illegal behavior unprofitable. Illegal conduct occurred inside Tina Bennis’s car, and it was therefore properly forfeited. Additionally, the government may not be required to compensate an owner for property which the government has already lawfully acquired. Therefore, Tina Bennis’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were not violated.

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