May 13th, 2024 2 Minute Read Amicus Brief by Ilya Shapiro

Amicus Brief: Sanchez v. United States

A federal statute bifurcates forfeiture proceedings when the government seizes property in connection with a suspected drug crime. In the initial proceeding in which innocent property owners may not participate, the nexus to the crime is litigated. Then, a preliminary order of forfeiture is entered, giving innocent property owners 30-days to come into court to seek the return of their money. In this case, three innocent property owners did that but because they signed an affidavit that was incorporated into the petition rather than the petition itself, the government argued they failed comply with the statute. The individuals moved for leave to amend to add the signature, which was denied because the district court concluded that the 30-day filing deadline prohibits amendment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed that denial.

There’s a circuit split on this point, but the issue itself is concerning from a civil-liberties perspective for two reasons. The first is that the criminal defendant who owns the property has no incentive to contest the nexus and hold the government to any burden of proof because they stand to sweeten a plea deal by not contesting the forfeiture of money they do not own (which is what happened here). The second is that forfeiture disproportionately targets lower income communities that may not be able to retain an attorney and who are likely to make a small mistake when filing the petition. Also, historically speaking, this was a disfavored practice where the government had the burden of proof and now, they’ve effectively flipped it to the pro se property owner.

The Manhattan Institute joined the Rutherford Institute on amicus brief supporting the property owners’ petition for Supreme Court review. We argue that the Eleventh Circuit’s holding conflicts with the federal forfeiture statute’s plain text, long-existing procedural principles, and Supreme Court precedents, such that its erroneous interpretation likely renders a key part of the law unconstitutional.

Ilya Shapiro is a senior fellow and director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo: Aslan Alphan/E+ via Getty Images


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