Can the State Seize your Property if you didn’t Commit the Crime?

bikeA word of advice to anyone planning on going out for a few drinks: don’t let someone else drive your car drunk.  A Robinson, Illinois woman learned this lesson the hard way when her drunken husband decided to drive her Harley Davidson motorcycle home on a suspended license and the court decided to confiscate it.   The major question of the case is whether or not the government is able to seize someone’s property if they weren’t the person who committed the crime.

The story goes like this: a woman and her husband decided to go out for a few drinks.  The woman, who was not drinking, was the designated driver for the night (always a smart move to have one of those) and was driving her husband around as they bar-hopped.  At the last bar, the husband, who had more than a few drinks and had multiple prior DUI convictions, got on the bike as the driver and told his wife to get on.  Knowing her husband was drunk and would be driving on a revoked license, the woman first refused until her husband told her he wasn’t getting off and she would have to walk the 12 blocks to their home.  The man was pulled over by police and charged with aggravated DUI and the State filed forfeiture documents on the bike and it was confiscated.

By their ruling in this case, both the lower court and Supreme Court answered the above questions as yes.  The woman and her attorney stated that the bike shouldn’t have been confiscated because she was not the one driving and the property didn’t belong to her husband.  The court ruled that by getting on the motorcycle, the woman was consenting to and enabling a crime and therefore the Harley was fair game for confiscation in a civil forfeiture of the property.  The trial court used the basis that the owner willfully allowed the husband to drive the property on a suspended license and therefore consented to the crime.  All of this justified seizing the motorcycle.

The Supreme Court also upheld the lower court’s ruling to confiscate the woman’s motorcycle when it was challenged due to the 8th amendment’s excessive fines clause.  The wife cited that her bike would be worth $35,000 and taking it from her would be an excessive fine.  The excessive fines clause basically states that the crime has to fit the punishment and an excessive fine can’t be given to someone for a minor crime.  In this case the court found that the fine was indeed not too excessive at all and didn’t violate the grossly disproportionate standard laid out in US vs Bajakajian.  The court looked at how integral the property was in the commission of the crime and found it was the very reason the crime was committed and therefore, justified the lower court’s decision.

Two judges dissented on this case.  Their reasons were due to the fact that the woman didn’t have much choice but to allow her husband to drive the bike and that it wasn’t reasonable to assume she should drag him off; basically stating that this was not enough consent to involve her in the crime.  This brings up a point as to how far the state is able to go as far as seizing property that is involved in a crime and how much responsibility the property owner has to prevent it from happening.  The major issue is that the wife in this case, obviously didn’t necessarily commit a crime.  Her husband was the one who committed the crime of driving under the influence but, he used her property to do so.  And in the end this means that the property was indeed fair game.

This is an important case and could set a precedent in future cases.  We’ll stay up to date on this case and others.  As always if you have any questions regarding DUI or any other information give us a call and one of our skilled attorneys will be happy to assist you.

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