(Reprinted with the permission of the Alameda District Attorney’s Office) United States vs. Ursery (1996)518 US_(135L.Ed.2d549)
ISSUE: Police in Michigan found marijuana growing adjacent to Ursery’s house. They also discovered marijuana seeds, stems, stalks, and a growlight inside the house. As the result, prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture claim against the house on grounds it “had been used for several years to facilitate the unlawful processing and distribution of a controlled substance.” That claim was settled when Ursery agreed to pay the government $13,250.
Based on discovery of the marijuana, prosecutors also filed criminal charges against Ursery. He was convicted but the Court of Appeals reversed on grounds of double jeopardy. Specifically, the court ruled a civil forfeiture action against a defendant based on the commission of the crime constituted “punishment” for purposes of double jeopardy. Thus, the defendant could not be punished criminally for the same crime. (1)
At the outset, the United States Supreme Court observed that the double jeopardy clause “prohibits the Government from punishing twice, or attempting a second time to punish criminally for the same offense.” (2) Thus, the issue was whether a civil forfeiture resulting from the commission of a crime is “punishment.”
The Court noted that a civil forfeiture proceeding might have “certain punitive aspects.” As the Court explained, “Requiring the forfeiture of property used to commit federal narcotics violations encourages property owners to take care in managing their property and ensure that they will not permit that property to be used for illegal purposes.”
Consequently, the Court ruled that civil forfeiture is not “punishment” in the context of double jeopardy. It was, therefore, not improper to prosecute Ursery criminally and seize assets which were the fruits or instrumentalities of the crime.
(1) Note: the Court’s decision in Ursery was also based on the related case of United States v. $405,089.23 which is not discussed in our report because the facts are not necessary to understanding the Court’s ruling. (2) Citing Witte v. United States (1996)515US_. Italics added.