Austin v. United States

PETITIONER: Richard Lyle Austin
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Austin's Auto Body Shop and mobile home

DOCKET NO.: 92-6073
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 509 US 602 (1993)
ARGUED: Apr 20, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 28, 1993

Miguel A. Estrada - on behalf of the Respondent
Richard L. Johnson - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Richard Lyle Austin was indicted on four counts of violating South Dakota’s drug laws. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to seven years in jail. The United States then filed an in rem action, seeking forfeiture of Austin’s mobile home and auto body shop under federal statutes that provide for forfeiture of property that is used or intended for use to facilitate the transportation of controlled substances, or related materials. Austin argued that forfeiture of his property would violate the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The district court rejected Austin’s argument and entered summary judgment in favor of the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Eighth Amendment did not apply to civil in rem actions for forfeiture of property to the government.


Does the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment apply to a statutory in rem forfeiture of property?

Media for Austin v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 20, 1993 in Austin v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 92-6073, Richard Lyle Austin v. the United States.

Mr. Johnson.

Richard L. Johnson:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue in this case is whether the Eighth Amendment and specifically the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the concept of... applies to the civil forfeiture under 21 U.S.C., section 881(a)(4) and (a)(7).

Mr. Richard Lyle Austin is the owner of the Garretson Body Shop and also the 1972 mobile home that were seized by the Government under the... these appropriate statutes.

The facts of the case show that he transferred 2 grams of cocaine to someone in the body shop, and that he obtained this from the mobile home.

A subsequent search of the mobile home and body shop indicated there were small amounts of cocaine, some paraphernalia, and some small amounts of marijuana.

Mr. Austin pled guilty in State court.

He was sentenced to 7 years.

The Government seized his mobile home and his body shop, which was his livelihood, and he had been in the auto body shop for about 25 years.

The affidavit in the record indicates he intended to return to that job, that type of living, the body-shop living, when he got out of prison.

The district court granted summary judgment.

The court of appeals reluctantly affirmed indicating that the technical legal distinctions regarding in personam and in rem prohibited it from reaching the issue of the Eighth Amendment applicability.

It also indicated that clear court decisions by this Court and other courts do not require proportionality in the civil proceedings for the forfeiture of property.

I want to make three points in this oral argument.

First is that where the Government stands to gain monetarily the Excessive Fines Clause should apply and Eighth Amendment proportionality should apply.

Secondly, the in rem fiction shouldn't bar the application of the excessive fines/proportionality analysis when the civil forfeitures are quasi-criminal or punishment in actual character.

Thirdly, under this Court's decisions in Halper and Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, those tests actually show that this civil forfeiture is punishment.

First of all, regarding the first point, the Court's decision in Browning v. Ferris provides a basis for applying the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause to civil actions and to forfeitures.

William H. Rehnquist:

I thought we rejected the application there.

Richard L. Johnson:

You indicated that you rejected the application to actions between private parties.

You left open the possibility that when the Government is involved, that the Excessive Fines Clause could also be applicable.

And, in fact, you suggested in, I think, a footnote quoting Halper that it might give rise to the Eighth Amendment analysis when the Government stood to gain punitive damages.

And in Justice O'Connor's concurring and dissenting opinion, there was a substantial analysis of the historical development of the Excessive Fines Clause and the fact that fines and forfeitures are equivalent, and that, in fact, the Eighth Amendment should apply to civil actions.

Your quote in Browning v. Ferris regarding the court of Vermont also indicated... the Supreme Court of Vermont also indicated that in certain circumstances you felt that the Excessive Fines Clause or the Eighth Amendment could be applicable.

In your case Harmelin v. Michigan, Justice Scalia's footnote also indicated that it makes sense to scrutinize governmental action more closely when the state stands to benefit.

It's clear that under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(4) and (a)(7), the Government has stood to benefit.

We cite in our brief an article from Newsweek which indicates that since 1985 the Government has obtained about $2.6 billion through this forfeiture proceeding.

There's also a quote by the Director of the Asset Forfeiture Branch of the Attorney General's Office.

It says that civil forfeiture is the goose that laid the golden egg.