AUSTIN V. UNITED STATES, 509 U.S. 602 (1993)

Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we are asked to decide whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to forfeitures of property under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(4) and (a)(7). We hold that it does, and therefore remand the case for consideration of the question whether the forfeiture at issue here was excessive. 


On August 2, 1990, petitioner Richard Lyle Austin was indicted on four counts of violating South Dakota’s drug laws. Austin ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute, and was sentenced by the state court to seven years’ imprisonment. On September 7, the United States filed an in rem action in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota seeking forfeiture of Austin’s mobile home and auto body shop under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(4) and (a)(7).  Austin filed a claim and an answer to the complaint.

On February 4, 1991, the United States made a motion, supported by an affidavit from Sioux Falls Police Officer Donald Satterlee, for summary judgment. According to Satterlee’s affidavit, Austin met Keith Engebretson at Austin’s body shop on June 13, 1990, and agreed to sell cocaine to Engebretson. Austin left the shop, went to his mobile home, and returned to the shop with two grams of cocaine which he sold to Engebretson. State authorities executed a search warrant on the body shop and mobile home the following day. They discovered small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, a .22 caliber revolver, drug paraphernalia, and approximately $4,700 in cash. In opposing summary judgment, Austin argued that forfeiture of the properties would violate the Eighth Amendment.  The District Court rejected this argument and entered summary judgment for the United States.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit “reluctantly agreed with the government,” and affirmed. Although it thought that “the principle of proportionality should be applied in civil actions that result in harsh penalties,” and that the Government was “exacting too high a penalty in relation to the offense committed,” the court felt constrained from holding the forfeiture unconstitutional. It cited this Court’s decision in Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co. (1974), for the proposition that, when the Government is proceeding against property in rem, the guilt or innocence of the property’s owner “is constitutionally irrelevant.” It then reasoned: “We are constrained to agree with the Ninth Circuit that, if the constitution allows in rem forfeiture to be visited upon innocent owners . . ., the constitution hardly requires proportionality review of forfeitures.”

We granted certiorari to resolve an apparent conflict with the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit over the applicability of the Eighth Amendment to in rem civil forfeitures.


Austin contends that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to in rem civil forfeiture proceedings. We have had occasion to consider this Clause only once before. In Browning-Ferris Industries of Vt., Inc., v. Kelco Disposal, Inc. (1989), we held that the Excessive Fines Clause does not limit the award of punitive damages to a private party in a civil suit when the government neither has prosecuted the action nor has any right to receive a share of the damages. The Court’s opinion and JUSTICE O’CONNOR’s opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, reviewed in some detail the history of the Excessive Fines Clause. The Court concluded that both the Eighth Amendment and 10 of the English Bill of Rights of 1689, from which it derives, were intended to prevent the government from abusing its power to punish, and therefore that “the Excessive Fines Clause was intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by, and payable to, the government,”

We found it unnecessary to decide in Browning-Ferris whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies only to criminal cases. The United States now argues that


“any claim that the government’s conduct in a civil proceeding is limited by the Eighth Amendment generally, or by the Excessive Fines Clause in particular, must fail unless the challenged governmental action, despite its label, would have been recognized as a criminal punishment at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted.”

It further suggests that the Eighth Amendment cannot apply to a civil proceeding unless that proceeding is so punitive that it must be considered criminal under Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez (1963) and United States v. Ward (1980). We disagree.

Some provisions of the Bill of Rights are expressly limited to criminal cases. The Fifth Amendment’s Self-Incrimination Clause, for example, provides: “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The protections provided by the Sixth Amendment are explicitly confined to “criminal prosecutions.” The text of the Eighth Amendment includes no similar limitation.

…The purpose of the Eighth Amendment, putting the Bail Clause to one side, was to limit the government’s power to punish. The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is self-evidently concerned with punishment. The Excessive Fines Clause limits the government’s power to extract payments whether in cash or in kind, “as punishment for some offense.” “The notion of punishment, as we commonly understand it, cuts across the division between the civil and the criminal law.” “It is commonly understood that civil proceedings may advance punitive and remedial goals, and, conversely, that both punitive as well as remedial goals may be served by criminal penalties.” Thus, the question is not, as the United States would have it, whether forfeiture under 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) is civil or criminal, but rather whether it is punishment.

In considering this question, we are mindful of the fact that sanctions frequently serve more than one purpose. We need not exclude the possibility that a forfeiture serves remedial purposes to conclude that it is subject to the limitations of the Excessive Fines Clause. We, however, must determine that it can only be explained as serving in part to punish. We said in Halper that a “civil sanction that cannot fairly be said solely to serve a remedial purpose, but rather can only be explained as also serving either retributive or deterrent purposes, is punishment as we have come to understand the term.”  We turn, then, to consider whether, at the time the Eighth Amendment was ratified, forfeiture was understood at least in part as punishment, and whether forfeiture under 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) should be so understood today.

III.  A.

Three kinds of forfeiture were established in England at the time the Eighth Amendment was ratified in the United States: deodand, forfeiture upon conviction for a felony or treason, and statutory forfeiture. Each was understood, at least in part, as imposing punishment.


“At common law, the value of an inanimate object directly or indirectly causing the accidental death of a King’s subject was forfeited to the Crown as a deodand. The origins of the deodand are traceable to Biblical and pseudo-Christian practices, which reflected the view that the instrument of death was accused, and that religious expiation was required. …The value of the instrument was forfeited to the King, in the belief that the King would provide the money for Masses to be said for the good of the dead man’s soul, or insure that the deodand was put to charitable uses. When application of the deodand to religious or eleemosynary purposes ceased, and the deodand became a source of Crown revenue, the institution was justified as a penalty for carelessness.”


As Blackstone put it, “such misfortunes are in part owing to the negligence of the owner, and therefore he is properly punished by such forfeiture.”

The second kind of common law forfeiture fell only upon those convicted of a felony or of treason. “The convicted felon forfeited his chattels to the Crown and his lands escheated to his lord; the convicted traitor forfeited all of his property, real and personal, to the Crown.” Such forfeitures were known as forfeitures of estate. These forfeitures obviously served to punish felons and traitors, and were justified on the ground that property was a right derived from society which one lost by violating society’s laws.

Third, “English Law provided for statutory forfeitures of offending objects used in violation of the customs and revenue laws.” The most notable of these were the Navigation Acts of 1660 that required the shipping of most commodities in English vessels. Violations of the Acts resulted in the forfeiture of the illegally carried goods as well as the ship that transported them. The statute was construed so that the act of an individual seaman, undertaken without the knowledge of the master or owner, could result in forfeiture of the entire ship. Yet Blackstone considered such forfeiture statutes “penal.”

In Calero-Toledo, we observed that statutory forfeitures were “likely a product of the confluence and merger of the deodand tradition and the belief that the right to own property could be denied the wrongdoer.”  Since each of these traditions had a punitive aspect, it is not surprising that forfeiture under the Navigation Acts was justified as a penalty for negligence: “But the Owners of Ships are to take Care what Master they employ, and the Master what Mariners; and here Negligence is plainly imputable to the Master; for he is to report the Cargo of the Ship, and if he had searched and examined the Ship with proper care, according to his Duty, he would have found the Tea . . . and so might have prevented the Forfeiture.”


Of England’s three kinds of forfeiture, only the third took hold in the United States. “Deodands did not become part of the common law tradition of this country.” The Constitution forbids forfeiture of estate as a punishment for treason “except during the Life of the Person attainted,” U.S. Const., Art. III, 3, cl. 2, and the First Congress also abolished forfeiture of estate as a punishment for felons. “But long before the adoption of the Constitution, the common law courts in the Colonies – and later in the states during the period of Confederation – were exercising jurisdiction in rem in the enforcement of English and local forfeiture statutes.”

The First Congress passed laws subjecting ships and cargos involved in customs offenses to forfeiture. It does not follow from that fact, however, that the First Congress thought such forfeitures to be beyond the purview of the Eighth Amendment. Indeed, examination of those laws suggests that the First Congress viewed forfeiture as punishment. For example, by the Act of July 31, 1789, Congress provided that goods could not be unloaded except during the day and with a permit.

“And if the master or commander of any ship or vessel shall suffer or permit the same, such master and commander, and every other person who shall be aiding or assisting in landing, removing, housing, or otherwise securing the same, shall forfeit and pay the sum of four hundred dollars for every offence; shall moreover be disabled from holding any office of trust or profit under the United States, for a term not exceeding seven years; and it shall be the duty of the collector of the district to advertise the names of all such persons in the public gazette of the State in which he resides, within twenty days after each respective conviction. And all goods, wares and merchandise, so landed or discharged shall become forfeited, and may be seized by any officer of the customs; and where the value thereof shall amount to four hundred dollars, the vessel, tackle, apparel and furniture, shall be subject to like forfeiture and seizure.”

Forfeiture of the goods and vessel is listed alongside the other provisions for punishment. It is also of some interest that “forfeit” is the word Congress used for fine.  Other early forfeiture statutes follow the same pattern.


Our cases also have recognized that statutory in rem forfeiture imposes punishment. In Peisch v. Ware (1808), for example, the Court held that goods removed from the custody of a revenue officer without the payment of duties, should not be forfeitable for that reason unless they were removed with the consent of the owner or his agent. Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court:


“The court is also of opinion that the removal for which the act punishes the owner with a forfeiture of the goods must be made with his consent or connivance, or with that of some person employed or trusted by him.  If, by private theft or open robbery, without any fault on his part, his property should be invaded while in the custody of the officer of the revenue, the law cannot be understood to punish him with the forfeiture of that property.”


The same understanding of forfeiture as punishment runs through our cases rejecting the “innocence” of the owner as a common law defense to forfeiture. In these cases, forfeiture has been justified on two theories—that the property itself is “guilty” of the offense, and that the owner may be held accountable for the wrongs of others to whom he entrusts his property. Both theories rest, at bottom, on the notion that the owner has been negligent in allowing his property to be misused, and that he is properly punished for that negligence.

The fiction that “the thing is primarily considered the offender” has a venerable history in our case law. Yet the Court has understood this fiction to rest on the notion that the owner who allows his property to become involved in an offense has been negligent. Thus, in Goldsmith-Grant Co., the Court said that “ascribing to the property a certain personality, a power of complicity and guilt in the wrong,” had “some analogy to the law of deodand.” It then quoted Blackstone’s explanation of the reason for deodand: that “such misfortunes are in part owing to the negligence of the owner, and therefore he is properly punished by forfeiture.”

…The second theory on which the Court has justified the forfeiture of an “innocent” owner’s property is that the owner may be held accountable for the wrongs of others to whom he entrusts his property. In Harmony, it reasoned that “the acts of the master and crew, in cases of this sort, bind the interest of the owner of the ship, whether he be innocent or guilty; and he impliedly submits to whatever the law denounces as a forfeiture attached to the ship by reason of their unlawful or wanton wrongs.” It repeated this reasoning in Dobbins’s Distillery:


“The unlawful acts of the distiller bind the owner of the property, in respect to the management of the same, as much as if they were committed by the owner himself. Power to that effect the law vests in him by virtue of his lease; and, if he abuses his trust, it is a matter to be settled between him and his lessor; but the acts of violation as to the penal consequences to the property are to be considered just the same as if they were the acts of the owner.”


Like the guilty-property fiction, this theory of vicarious liability is premised on the idea that the owner has been negligent. Thus, in Calero-Toledo, we noted that application of forfeiture provision “to lessors, bailors, or secured creditors who are innocent of any wrongdoing . . . may have the desirable effect of inducing them to exercise greater care in transferring possession of their property.”

In sum, even though this Court has rejected the “innocence” of the owner as a common law defense to forfeiture, it consistently has recognized that forfeiture serves, at least in part, to punish the owner. More recently, we have noted that forfeiture serves “punitive and deterrent purposes,” and “imposes an economic penalty,” We conclude, therefore, that forfeiture generally and statutory in rem forfeiture in particular historically have been understood, at least in part, as punishment.  


We turn next to consider whether forfeitures under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) are properly considered punishment today. We find nothing in these provisions or their legislative history to contradict the historical understanding of forfeiture as punishment. Unlike traditional forfeiture statutes, 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) expressly provide an “innocent owner” defense. See 881(a)(4)(C) (“No conveyance shall be forfeited under this paragraph to the extent of an interest of an owner, by reason of any act or omission established by that owner to have been committed or omitted without the knowledge, consent, or willful blindness of the owner”); 881(a)(7) (“No property shall be forfeited under this paragraph, to the extent of an interest of an owner, by reason of any act or omission established by that owner to have been committed or omitted without the knowledge or consent of that owner”); These exemptions serve to focus the provisions on the culpability of the owner in a way that makes them look more like punishment, not less.

In United States v. United States Coin & Currency (1971), we reasoned that 19 U.S.C. 1618, which provides that the Secretary of the Treasury is to return the property of those who do not intend to violate the law, demonstrated Congress’ intent “to impose a penalty only upon those who are significantly involved in a criminal enterprise.”  The inclusion of innocent-owner defenses in 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) reveals a similar congressional intent to punish only those involved in drug trafficking.

Furthermore, Congress has chosen to tie forfeiture directly to the commission of drug offenses. Thus, under 881(a)(4), a conveyance is forfeitable if it is used or intended for use to facilitate the transportation of controlled substances, their raw materials, or the equipment used to manufacture or distribute them. Under 881(a)(7), real property is forfeitable if it is used or intended for use to facilitate the commission of a drug-related crime punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment.

The legislative history of 881 confirms the punitive nature of these provisions. When it added subsection (a)(7) to 881 in 1984, Congress recognized “that the traditional criminal sanctions of fine and imprisonment are inadequate to deter or punish the enormously profitable trade in dangerous drugs.” It characterized the forfeiture of real property as “a powerful deterrent.”

The Government argues that 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) are not punitive but, rather, should be considered remedial in two respects. First, they remove the “instruments” of the drug trade “thereby protecting the community from the threat of continued drug dealing.” Second, the forfeited assets serve to compensate the Government for the expense of law enforcement activity and for its expenditure on societal problems such as urban blight, drug addiction, and other health concerns resulting from the drug trade.

In our view, neither argument withstands scrutiny. Concededly, we have recognized that the forfeiture of contraband itself may be characterized as remedial because it removes dangerous or illegal items from society. The Court, however, previously has rejected government’s attempt to extend that reasoning to conveyances used to transport illegal liquor. See One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania (1965). In that case it noted, “There is nothing even remotely criminal in possessing an automobile.” The same, without question, is true of the properties involved here, and the Government’s attempt to characterize these properties as “instruments” of the drug trade must meet the same fate as Pennsylvania’s effort to characterize the 1958 Plymouth sedan as “contraband.”

The Government’s second argument about the remedial nature of this forfeiture is no more persuasive. We previously have upheld the forfeiture of goods involved in customs violations as “a reasonable form of liquidated damages.” But the dramatic variations in the value of conveyances and real property forfeitable under 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) undercut any similar argument with respect to those provisions. The Court made this very point in Ward: The “forfeiture of property . . . is a penalty that has absolutely no correlation to any damages sustained by society or to the cost of enforcing the law.”

Fundamentally, even assuming that 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) serve some remedial purpose, the Government’s argument must fail. “A civil sanction that cannot fairly be said solely to serve a remedial purpose, but rather can only be explained as also serving either retributive or deterrent purposes, is punishment, as we have come to understand the term.” In light 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, we cannot conclude that forfeiture under 881(a)(4) and (a)(7) serves solely a remedial purpose. We therefore conclude that forfeiture under these provisions constitutes “payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense,” and, as such, is subject to the limitations of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.


Austin asks that we establish a multifactor test for determining whether a forfeiture is constitutionally “excessive.”  We decline that invitation. Although the Court of Appeals opined that “the government is exacting too high a penalty in relation to the offense committed,” it had no occasion to consider what factors should inform such a decision, because it thought it was foreclosed from engaging in the inquiry. Prudence dictates that we allow the lower courts to consider that question in the first instance.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

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Last Modified:  08/21/2019


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