Justices Won’t Answer Forfeiture Questions Yet

(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday rejected the appeal of a woman whose $201,000 in cash was seized by Texas prosecutors, but Justice Clarence Thomas called for clarity regarding the state’s burden of proof for forfeiture claims.

Lisa Olivia Leonard’s son James was pulled over in April 2013 and the police officer found a safe in the trunk, which contained $201,100 and a bill of sale for a home in Pennsylvania, according to court records. James said the safe belonged to his mother.

The state of Texas initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against the cash, claiming it was connected to drug sales.

The trial court issued a forfeiture order and Leonard appealed, arguing the money was from a home she recently sold in Pennsylvania and was not related to drugs.

The Texas Court of Appeals upheld the forfeiture order, citing the suspicious circumstances of the traffic stop and contradicting stories about the safe from James and his passenger. It found that the state proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the money in the safe was either the proceeds of a drug sale or was meant to be used in a drug deal.

In her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Leonard argued that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause required Texas to prove the cash was used for drugs by clear and convincing evidence rather than by a preponderance of the evidence, which is a lower burden of proof under which the state only needs to show that its evidence more likely than not supports its claim.

In a six-page statement issued Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas said the high court decided not to take up the case because Leonard raised her due-process arguments for the first time on appeal and the Texas Court of Appeals did not have a chance to address them when it heard her case.

However, Thomas said civil forfeiture operations “frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” and noted that early statutes allowed the government to bring forfeiture suits civilly rather than criminally.

“In the absence of this historical practice, the Constitution presumably would require the Court to align its dis­tinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation,” he wrote.

The conservative justice said he is skeptical of the civil forfeiture approach because historical forfeiture laws were narrower than modern ones, and it’s unclear whether courts historically allowed such cases to proceed civilly all the time.

“Whether forfeiture is characterized as civil or criminal carries important implications for a variety of procedural protec­tions, including the right to a jury trial and the proper standard of proof. Indeed, as relevant in this case, there is some evidence that the government was historically re­quired to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas concluded by saying, “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.”