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Cities set back in war on drugs by high court's asset forfeiture decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision last week that will decrease government's effectiveness in using forfeiture of property as a deterrent against drug offenses. This decision is a major set-back for cities that have adopted federal forfeiture guidelines.

In a unanimous judgement, the Court ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment must apply to the forfeiture of vehicles and property used, or intended to be used to carry out certain drug-related crimes.

Prior to this decision, cities that aided the federal government in arrests of alleged drug smugglers, mobsters or money launderers were awarded a percentage of the confiscated as, sets. Depending on the city's involvement in the proceedings, a city would receive its share of forfeited cash, cars, businesses, or other seized property.

The federal government had confiscated close to $2 billion in property in 1992, an increase from $33 million in 1979. This is not including the property, valued in the billions, sold at auctions. Under the decision, Cities will no longer count on their portion of these funds.

The opinion of the Court in Austin v. United States, as delivered by Justice Harry Blackmun, focused on the punitive nature of forfeiture.

The U.S. Government, however, claimed that forfeiture is not punitive, but remedial-- both in its efforts to remove the "instruments" used to further drug use and its compensation to governments who must fight against drugs and the societal problems that often accompany drag use.

The Government focused on protection of the community from "the threat of continued drug dealing," as well as the high costs involved in combatting "urban blight, drug addiction, and other health concerns resulting form the drug trade."

The Court maintained that forfeiture was not purely remedial, but "payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense." As a punishment, the Court concluded that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment did indeed apply.

The decision did not go so far as to establish a test for the excessiveness of forfeiture, but left that up to the lower courts. The ruling by the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case was remanded to that court.
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Author:McCullough, Meredith
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jul 5, 1993
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