Austin v. United States

509 U.S. 602 (1993).

A United States Supreme Court opinion in which the Court reviewed for the first time the issue of whether the constitutional limitations of the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment should be applied to in rem civil forfeitures — specifically, drug-related forfeitures of property authorized under 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(7).

The majority, guided by Justice Blackmun, held that a civil forfeiture amounted to a punishment by the sovereign and, thus, fell within the confines of the Excessive Fines Clause.  The Court condemned the dichotomy between civil and criminal remedies and focused instead of the punitive character of the civil forfeiture.

The Court began with an historical analysis of the Eighth Amendment. The amendment was adopted to place a limitation on government’s punitive power. The United States argued that the Eighth Amendment was only applicable to actions which “would have been recognized as a criminal punishment at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted.” The United States argued further that forfeiture of property was not considered criminal punishment and, thus, the Eighth Amendment was not applicable. The majority rejected the prosecution’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment for two reasons.

First, the majority acknowledged that the Eighth Amendment contains no express provision limiting its application to criminal actions. The Court assumed that in drafting the Bill of Rights, the Framers were aware of this distinction because the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment expressly provides: “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  Likewise, the Constitution explicitly confines the operation of the Sixth Amendment to “criminal prosecutions.” The Eighth Amendment, however, contains no such language regarding criminal proceedings. The Court opined that history does not justify imposing a limitation on the Eighth Amendment solely to criminal actions.

Second, the Court believed that the theory of punishment passed across the dichotomy between civil and criminal proceedings.  Thus, putting aside the criminal/civil distinction, the only relevant inquiry in for the Court was to determine whether forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. ss 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) should be understood as imposing punishment on the defendant.

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