Forfeiture Vehicle After Alleged Offense
The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to civil in rem forfeiture actions.
See Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 604, 125 L. Ed. 2d 488, 113 S. Ct. 2801 (1993) (holding that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to forfeitures of property under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(4) and (a)(7)).
In Austin, the Supreme Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the federal forfeiture statutes because "of the historical understanding of forfeiture as punishment, the clear focus of 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) on the culpability of the owner, and the evidence that Congress understood those provisions as serving to deter and to punish." Austin, 509 U.S. at 621-22.
The Supreme Court stated that the relevant question is not whether a forfeiture is nominally civil or criminal, but whether it is punishment. See id. at 610.
However, the Supreme Court declined in Austin to establish a standard for determining whether a forfeiture constitutes an excessive fine for purposes of the Eighth Amendment. See 509 U.S. at 622-23.
The Eighth Amendment provides: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
In United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 141 L. Ed. 2d 314, 118 S. Ct. 2028 (1998), the Supreme Court established a standard for determining whether a forfeiture constitutes an excessive fine for purposes of the Eighth Amendment.
The Supreme Court held that "a punitive forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause if it is grossly disproportional to the gravity of a defendant's offense." 524 U.S. at 334. the Supreme Court explained:
"In applying this standard, the district courts in the first instance, and the courts of appeals, reviewing the proportionality determination de novo, must compare the amount of the forfeiture to the gravity of the defendant's offense. If the amount of the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant's offense, it is unconstitutional." 524 U.S. at 336-37.
The Supreme Court stated that, in determining excessiveness:
(1) "judgments about the appropriate punishment for an offense belong in the first instance to the legislature,"
(2) "any judicial determination regarding the gravity of a particular criminal offense will be inherently imprecise." 524 U.S. at 336.
This Court recently applied the Bajakajian standard in Kelley v. State, supra. In Kelley, this Court held that the forfeiture of the claimant's 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix automobile (valued at approximately $ 30,000) was excessive under the Bajakajian standard.
Four tablets of the controlled substance aminorex and 6.2 grams of marijuana had been found in the automobile.
The claimant was arrested and was subsequently convicted of possession of a controlled substance, a violation of Ala. Code 1975, 13A-12-212(a)(1), and a Class C felony.
A class C felony carries a maximum fine of $ 5,000. This Court, applying the Bajakajian standard, stated:
"Comparing the legislature's assessment of the gravity of Kelley's crime with the $ 30,000 forfeiture the state seeks--a forfeiture in an amount six times the maximum fine the legislature has allowed the courts to impose in such a case--we conclude that such a forfeiture would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense."