United States v. 92 Buena Vista Avenue, 507 U.S. 111 (1993)

2012-09-19 13:27:55

This was one of four forfeiture cases decided during the 1992 term of the Supreme Court, all against the government. In Buena Vista, a drug trafficker had given his girlfriend $240,000 to purchase a home for herself and her three children. When the government subsequently sought to forfeit her home as an asset ‘‘traceable’’ to illegal drug proceeds pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(6), she asserted that the statute’s ‘‘innocent owner’’ defense applied, because she had no knowledge of the gift’s tainted origin. Justice Stevens’ plurality opinion is remembered for its holding that the statute’s innocent owner defense applies not only to someone who innocently purchases a tainted asset but also to someone who innocently receives it as a gift. This holding was effectively nullified by the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, which made the defense largely unavailable to the recipient of a gift. Presumably Congress thought it was less important to protect such unwitting recipients than to deny a wrongdoer the opportunity to ‘‘launder’’ tainted assets by transferring them.

However, the case is also important because to reach its conclusion, the Court had to resolve other statutory ambiguities regarding the operation of forfeiture and the applicability of the common law ‘‘relation- back’’ doctrine. The government had argued, inter alia, that the claimant was not an owner at all (and thus not entitled to the statute’s innocent owner defense), because under the ‘‘relation back’’ forfeiture doctrine, the government became owner of the money at the time of the drug crime, and owner of any assets subsequently purchased with it. In rejecting this contention, the Court held that the government becomes owner only after a legal judgment of forfeiture; only after such a judgment does the relation back doctrine apply to retroactively vest the government’s title back to time of the crime. Because the government had not yet won a judgment, the claimant was an owner entitled to raise the defense. Both the statute’s innocent owner defense and the liberal interpretation applied in this case reflect some discomfort with the legal fiction that underpins civil forfeiture doctrine: that the inanimate object itself, not its owner, is the guilty party.


References and Further Reading

  • Department of Justice, Asset Forfeiture Law and Practice Manual, June 1998.
  • Kessler, Steven L., Civil and Criminal Forfeiture: Federal and State Practice } 6.01, 1993.
  • Smith, David B. Prosecution and Defense of Forfeiture Cases. Matthew Bender.

See also Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co, 416 U.S. 663 (1974); Civil Asset Forfeiture