High Court Backs Asset Confiscation: Man's Indiscretion Cost Wife Her Car

Article excerpt

A harlot who beds a client in a car, a plane, a ship or even a house may cost him more than the usual fee, the U.S. Supreme Court decided yesterday.

A 5-4 opinion authored by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and backed by both female justices rejected Tina Bennis' plea that fairness required she not forfeit her old clunker Pontiac to Detroit authorities because her husband used it for oral sex with a prostitute.

Innocence and fairness are beside the point, the chief justice said in the ruling, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who relied on "a long and unbroken line of cases" for their decision.

But a withering dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens called it "blatant unfairness" that employed Middle Ages logic and ignored realities "simply because an illicit act took place once in the driver's seat."

"For centuries prostitutes have been plying their trade on other people's property. Assignations have occurred in palaces, luxury hotels, cruise ships, college dormitories, truck stops, back alleys and back seats," Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent, also signed by Justices David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer.

Reminding his brethren that Mrs. Bennis blamelessly allowed her husband to use the 1977 car to commute, Justice Stevens said no Supreme Court cases "would justify the confiscation of an ocean liner just because one of its passengers sinned while on board."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a separate dissent.

Mrs. Bennis was described as confused and shocked by her attorney, Stefan B. Herpel of Ann Arbor, Mich., who ignored the absence of value in the car and brought the appeal in hopes of enhancing his status in the controversial field of civil forfeitures.

"The decision essentially relied on a medieval legal concept. I fear it has given police a tool for tyranny," Mr. Herpel said, calling the outcome shocking.

The Institute of Justice attacked the ruling as ignoring the rights of innocent property owners. While opposing Justice Thomas' vote, it praised the recommendation in his concurring opinion for changes in the law to correct the unfairness.

"We have learned in the past decade that if you give governments an inch under civil forfeiture laws, they will take a mile," said Institute of Justice attorney Scott Bullock, who claims such laws are roulette wheels for governments to raise money from the innocent.

The Detroit law sought to reduce offenses in high-crime zones by allowing police to seize and sell a car or other property used in prostitution, regardless of ownership. …