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Court Limits Property Confiscation by Government

In a decision with important implications for civil liberties and property rights, the Supreme Court today, for the first time, stated that a forfeiture action by the government was an unconstitutional excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Court ruled in U.S. v. Bajakajian (No. 96-1487), that the government could not forfeit several hundred thousand dollars from a man who failed to report that he was taking the money from the country­­an offense for which the maximum fine is $ 5,000.

"We hope that this case will be a watershed in forfeiture litigation," said Tom Gordon, Interim Director of Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR), a national nonprofit dedicated to fighting the abuses of asset forfeiture. "Today, the Court has taken the position that the government may not arbitrarily confiscate citizens' property without regard to constitutional protections."

Hosep Krikor Bajakajian and his wife were attempting to board a flight from Los Angeles to Cyprus with $357,144 in United States currency, when they were stopped by U.S. Customs officials. Although he had legally obtained the money, Mr. Bajakajian was arrested for transporting more than $10,000 outside of the United States without filing a report with the U.S. Customs Service.

The federal government sought the confiscation of the entire $357,144. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered Bajakajian to pay only $15,000, holding that any larger forfeiture would be disproportionate to the offense committed by Bajakajian. The Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court also sided with Bajakajian, with the Supreme Court saying today that forfeiture of the entire amount of money "would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense."

Forfeiture actions are a little known body of law in which the government confiscates people's property by claiming that the property, not its owner, is guilty of a crime. Because the Constitution affords lesser protection to property than to people, the government's case is much easier in a forfeiture action than in a criminal prosecution. However, the results can be equally devastating to individuals. "When the government confiscates a person's home or business, the person is often harmed far more than if they had been given a brief jail sentence," Gordon said. "The safeguards against government overreaching should be just as strict for protecting property as they are for protecting liberty."

Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR)
P.O. Box 15421
Washington, DC 20003
Ph. - 202-546-4381
Web -

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