United States v. Bajakajian

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Bajakajian
LOCATION: National Endowment for the Arts

DOCKET NO.: 96-1487
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 321 (1998)
ARGUED: Nov 04, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1998

Irving L. Gornstein - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner
James E. Blatt - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

During a routine check of departing international flight passengers, customs officers discovered $357,144 on the person of Hosep Bajakajian. In addition to charging him, under 31 U.S.C. Section 5316, of attempting to leave the United States with an unreported sum in excess of $10,000 cash, the government also sought forfeiture of the entire $357,144 under 18 U.S.C. Section 982 providing that the deliberate violation of Section 5316 shall result in the forfeiture of "any property involved in such an offense." After having its forfeiture claim rejected in both a district court and the Ninth Circuit, as excessively unconstitutional, the Supreme Court granted the government certiorari.


Is the forfeiture of $357,144 cash, a sum involved in the offense of failure to report property in excess of $10,000 while attempting to leave the country, a violation of the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause?

Media for United States v. Bajakajian

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 04, 1997 in United States v. Bajakajian

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1487, United States v. Hosep Krikor Bajakajian.

Mr. Gornstein.

Irving L. Gornstein:

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

Respondent was about to board a flight to Syria when a Customs inspector informed him that he was required to file a currency report if he was taking more than 10,000 dollars with him.

Respondent claimed that he was taking less than 10,000 dollars and he therefore did not file a currency report.

Customs inspectors searched respondent and his possessions and found more than 350,000 dollars in cash.

Respondent subsequently pleaded guilty to wilfully failing to file a currency report as he was about to transport more than 350,000 dollars outside this country.

For that offense, Congress has mandated forfeiture of the unreported currency.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, however, that the forfeiture of any of that currency would constitute an excessive fine.

We believe the court of appeals erred for two reasons.

First, the unreported currency is an instrumentality of a reporting offense and may be forfeited as such without violating the Excessive Fines Clause, and second, even if it is not an instrumentality, its forfeiture is a permissible punishment for what is a serious criminal offense.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

On your first argument, if it's an instrumentality of the crime and we agree with you on that, does that mean the excessive fines analysis is just inapplicable, or that it is presumptively non... not excessive?

Irving L. Gornstein:

It is satisfied.

That is that it is not... it is a way of showing that the fine is nonexcessive because the forfeiture of property that is involved in the offense is an inherently proportional... proportionate sanction.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In other words, the Excessive Fines Clause analysis applies in either event.

Irving L. Gornstein:

It does, but the manner of satisfying the Excessive Fines Clause is by showing that it is property that's seized... one way of satisfying it, it is showing that the property that is seized is in fact an instrumentality of the offense, and there... questions may arise about whether it has a sufficiently close connection to the offense to be classified properly as an instrumentality, but once it is, then that would satisfy the Excessive Fines Clause.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, if we have to ask about excessiveness anyway, I'm just wondering why we have to go through the additional step of elaborating a big jurisprudence on what is an instrumentality and what isn't.

Irving L. Gornstein:

Well, historic--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

If in any event we're going to talk about proportionality, maybe--

Irving L. Gornstein:



Anthony M. Kennedy:

--we should just save ourselves a step.

Irving L. Gornstein:

--Well, there are just two different ways of talking about proportionality, Justice Kennedy.

Proportionality, it is inherently proportionate once it's an instrumentality.

No further inquiry into culpability or to the value of the property is ever necessary once there is a showing that this is in fact an instrumentality of the--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, you said it's presumptively proportional.

Irving L. Gornstein:


I'm saying that it is--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

I thought.

Irving L. Gornstein:

--I'm sorry if I... if we had a misunderstanding on that, but generally speaking, if the... if it is an instrumentality, then it is per se nonexcessive, and I would except from that one small category of cases where perhaps the property is involved in what might be a minor infraction such as a parking violation, but if it is the kind of violations that property have historically been forfeited for customs violations, for criminal offenses, then if it is an instrumentality in the offense, then it is per se a proportionate fine and not an excessive one.