Supreme Court limits government seizure of assets in drug conspiracy cases

Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in her opinion that forfeiture laws are “limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.”

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is placing new limits on the government’s ability to seize assets from people who are convicted of drug crimes but receive little of the illegal proceeds.

The unanimous ruling on Monday comes as the Justice Department has moved to impose harsher punishments for drug trafficking and related crimes, reversing Obama-era policies.

The case involved a Tennessee man convicted for his role selling iodine water purification filters to methamphetamine makers. Terry Honeycutt helped sell more than 20,000 filters at his brother’s hardware store and prosecutors said both brothers knew the iodine was used by local meth cooks.

Honeycutt’s brother pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 of the $270,000 in profits. The government tried to get the remaining $70,000 from Honeycutt, but he argued that he wasn’t responsible for it since he didn’t personally see any profits from the scheme.

A federal appeals court ruled against Honeycutt, agreeing with prosecutors that each brother bore the full responsibility for the entire amount.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her opinion for the high court that forfeiture laws are “limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.”

She cited as an example a case in which a marijuana farmer masterminds a scheme to sell pot on college campuses and recruits a college student to deliver the packages for $300 a month. In her example, the farmer might earn $3 million in a year, while the student earns $3,600. She said under the government’s theory, the student could face a forfeiture judgment for the entire conspiracy amount of $3 million.

“Congress did not authorize the government to confiscate substitute property from other defendants or coconspirators,” Sotomayor said. “It authorized the government to confiscate assets only from the defendant who initially acquired the property and who bears responsibility for its dissipation.”

The ruling is the latest effort by the high court to limit perceived overreaching by federal prosecutors, said John Marti, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“In short, federal criminal statutes and forfeiture statutes are not blank checks for prosecutors,” Marti said.