Austin v. United States
In Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993), the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "excessive fines" applies to civil, in rem forfeiture actions under federal anti-drug laws.
The Court stated that the pertinent question for purposes of an Eighth Amendment analysis is "not . . . whether forfeiture . . . is civil or criminal, but rather, whether it is punishment." Austin, 509 U.S. at 610.
Analyzing the history of in rem forfeitures, the Court concluded that statutory in rem forfeitures have been traditionally understood, at least in part, as punishment. Id. at 618, 113 S. Ct. at 2810.
Starting from the premise that in rem forfeitures are at least somewhat punitive, the Court then looked at the federal forfeiture statute under consideration to determine if anything in the statute contradicted that historical understanding. Id. at 619.
It noted the presence of an "innocent owner" defense, stating that such an exemption served to make a forfeiture look "more like punishment, not less." Id. at 619.
The Court further noted that Congress has tied forfeitures directly to certain drug offenses and that the legislative history of the forfeiture statute confirmed it was intended to punish and deter crime. Id. at 620.
In rejecting the government's argument that forfeiture of a drug dealer's mobile home and automobile body shop was remedial and not punitive, the Court stated that, although forfeiture of contraband is remedial "because it removes dangerous or illegal items from society," real property itself is not dangerous or illegal and cannot properly be characterized as "'instruments' of the drug trade." Id. at 621.
The Court also rejected the government's argument that, because the forfeiture statute had some remedial purpose, in that it helped to compensate the government for the costs of combating illegal drugs, the Court should find the Eighth Amendment inapplicable. Id. at 621.
Instead, the Court held that a civil sanction that has any "'retributive or deterrent purposes . . . is punishment'" and is limited by the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 621-22.
(Austin, 509 U.S. at p. 610.) If the law was entirely remedial it would not be considered punishment. (Ibid.)
The Supreme Court remanded "for consideration of the question whether the forfeiture here at issue a mobile home and a body shop was excessive." 509 U.S. at 604.
Quite naturally, questions of proportionality arise in the wake of Austin.
The cases have considered many factors, including the implications of the forfeiture of a home. See Deborah F. Buckman, When Does Forfeiture of Real Property Violate Excessive Fines Clause of Eighth Amendment--Post-Austin Cases, 168 A.L.R. Fed. 6b 375, 396 (2001).
In many circumstances, "excessiveness is a highly subjective judgment." Id. at 397.
The Court the Court concluded that civil forfeiture penalties could be a form of punishment within the meaning of the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment. Austin pointed out that the concept of punishment under the Eighth Amendment was broader than that encompassed by the Mendoza-Martinez analysis. ( Id. at p. 610, fn. 6.)
Austin took a categorical approach to the question and held that the proper test for Eighth Amendment "excessive fines" claims was to determine whether the law "can only be explained as serving in part to punish."