Bennis v. Michigan Case Brief

Why is the case important?

A husband used a car he jointly owned with his wife to have sex with a prostitute. The government seeks forfeiture of the car.

Facts of the case

Bennis’s husband was convicted of gross indecency following his sexual activity with a prostitute in the couple’s jointly-owned car. The local county prosecutor filed a complaint alleging the car was a public nuisance subject to abatement (i.e., to eliminate or confiscate the car). The Circuit Court entered the abatement order, but the Appeals Court reversed. After granting leave to appeal, the Supreme Court of Michigan reversed the appellate court’s decision and re-entered the abatement order. Bennis appealed to the Supreme Court.

Question

If an owner of property does not know how her property is being used by another, can the owner’s interest still be forfeited?

Answer

Yes.
A long line of cases holds that an owner’s interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which to property is put even though the owner did not know how her property was being used.
Forfeiture of property prevents further illicit use in two ways. It prevents further illicit use of the property and renders the illegal behavior unprofitable by imposing an economic penalty.
The government is not required to compensate an owner for property, which it has already lawfully acquired under the exercise of governmental authority other than the power of eminent domain. Thus, there was no taking that required compensation.
Petitioner’s automobile facilitated and was used in criminal activity. The state sought to deter illegal activity, and they rightly do so by subjecting the car to forfeiture.

Conclusion

Statutory forfeitures of property entrusted by the innocent owner to another who uses it in violation of the revenue laws of the United States is not a violation of the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Forfeiture of property prevents illegal uses both by preventing further illicit use of the property and by imposing an economic penalty, thereby rendering illegal behavior unprofitable. Illegal conduct occurred inside Tina Bennis’s car, and it was therefore properly forfeited. Additionally, the government may not be required to compensate an owner for property which the government has already lawfully acquired. Therefore, Tina Bennis’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were not violated.

  • Case Brief: 1996
  • Petitioner: Bennis
  • Respondent: Michigan
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 516 US 442 (1996)
Argued: Nov 29, 1995
Decided: Mar 4, 1996