The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could set limits on the federal government’s sweeping powers to seize property in drug cases under criminal forfeiture laws.
Tony and Terry Honeycutt were charged with federal drug offenses after selling quantities of iodine-based water disinfectant at their camping and hunting store in Chattanooga—because the substance can also be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Tony, the actual owner of the store, pleaded guilty, and had $200,000 seized—the amount believed equivalent to his proceeds from the sales of the chemical. Terry fought the charge, and lost. The government then sought an additional $70,000 from him. In Honeycutt v. United States, Terry is arguing that he is not liable for the proceeds because he wasn’t an owner of the store.
The local district court agreed that Terry should not have to pay, but this was overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which held that “joint and several liability” applies in drug forfeiture cases. In other words, as a co-conspirator he could be held liable for the proceeds even if he never saw a penny of them.
The federal government acknowledged that the appeals courts have been divided on the question presented by Terry’s case—but nonetheless urged the Supreme Court justices to deny review, saying that the split among the circuit courts is “lopsided and recent.” Disregarding these arguments, the high court agreed to hear the case. It will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision expected in June. The outcome, of course, will almost certainly hinge on the “swing vote” seat on the Supreme Court to be appointed by the incoming president.
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