United States v. Ursery

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Eastern District Court of Michigan

DOCKET NO.: 95-345
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 267 (1996)
ARGUED: Apr 17, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1996

Jeffry K. Finer – Argued the cause for respondents $405,089.23 et al
Lawrence S. Robbins – Argued the cause for respondent Ursery
Michael R. Dreeben – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Alleging that Ursery manufactured marijuana on his property, the United States government initiated criminal proceedings against Ursery and began civil forfeiture proceedings against his property. On appeal from his conviction in District Court, the Court of Appeals reversed on double-jeopardy grounds. The government then initiated a second set of proceedings against Ursery’s property, which was reversed on new double-jeopardy grounds. The government appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.


Do civil property forfeitures (“in rem” forfeiture) constitute a “punishment” in terms of the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause which forbids successive prosecutions and punishment for the same crime?

Media for United States v. Ursery

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 17, 1996 in United States v. Ursery

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 1996 in United States v. Ursery

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in two consolidated cases No. 95-345, United States against Ursery and No. 95-346, United States versus $405,089.23 to be exact.

After the police found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the Michigan Home of Guy Ursery, the government filed a civil forfeiture action against the home claiming that it had been used to facilitate a drug offense.

Ursery settled the forfeiture action by paying a little over $13,000.00 to the government.

Shortly after which he was criminally convicted of manufacturing marijuana.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated his conviction based upon its view of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the government from imposing multiple punishments for the same offense in separate proceeding.

The court decided that Ursery’s criminal conviction in the civil forfeiture action against his house each were a punishment for the same underlying drug offense.

In the second case, arising in California Charles Arlt and James Wren were convicted of various drug offenses and money laundering crime based upon their operation of a large scale multi-state drug distribution ring.

In a civil action following their criminal conviction, various properties owned by Arlt or Wren were forfeited to the government on the ground that the properties either were proceeds from the illegal drug sale or had been purchased with drug proceeds.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the forfeiture finding that it violated the Double Jeopardy Clause because it was a second punishment imposed by the government for the same offenses underlying the criminal conviction.

We consolidated the cases for review and we now reverse the judgments of the Court of Appeal.

Since the earliest days of this nation, Congress has authorized the government to seek parallel civil forfeiture actions in criminal prosecutions based on the same underlying event.

In the series of cases dating back over 60 years, the Court has consistently found civil forfeiture not to be a punishment under the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Like the forfeitures that we previously reviewed, the forfeitures in this case took place under civil rather than criminal statute and the forfeiture actions were brought against property used in violation of the law rather than against individuals who might have used the property.

Significantly, these forfeitures serve important non-punitive goal such as encouraging property owners to take care and managing their property ensuring they will not let the property be used for illegal purposes, abating nuisances, and preventing people from profiting from illegal act.

Though the Double Jeopardy Clause prevents the government from imposing two or more punishments for the same offenses in separate proceedings, that prohibition is not implicated in these cases because these civil forfeitures are not self-punitive in form or fact as they constitute punishment for purposes of double jeopardy.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Thomas has joined; Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.