United States v. Parcel of Rumson, N. J., Land, 507 U.S. 111 (1993)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1992

Syllabus

UNITED STATES v. A PARCEL OF LAND, BUILDINGS, APPURTENANCES, AND IMPROVEMENTS, KNOWN AS 92 BUENA VISTA AVENUE, RUMSON, NEW JERSEY, et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

No. 91-781. Argued October 13, 1992—Decided February 24, 1993

The Government filed an in rem action against the parcel of land on which respondent's home is located, alleging that she had purchased the property with funds given her by Joseph Brenna that were "the proceeds traceable" to illegal drug trafficking, and that the property was therefore subject to seizure and forfeiture under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, 21 U. S. C. 881(a)(6). The District Court ruled, among other things, that respondent, who claims that she had no knowledge of the origins of the funds used to buy her house, could not invoke the "innocent owner" defense in 881(a)(6), which provides that "no property shall be forfeited . . . , to the extent of the interest of an owner, by reason of any act . . . established by that owner to have been committed . . . without the knowledge or consent of that owner." The Court of Appeals remanded on interlocutory appeal, rejecting the District Court's reasoning that the innocent owner defense may be invoked only by persons who are bona fide purchasers for value and by those who acquired their property interests before the acts giving rise to the forfeiture took place.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

937 F. 2d 98, affirmed.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Blackmun, Justice O'Connor, and Justice Souter, concluded that an owner's lack of knowledge of the fact that her home had been purchased with the proceeds of illegal drug transactions constitutes a defense to a forfeiture proceeding under the statute. Pp. 118-131. (a) The task of construing the statute must be approached with caution. Although customs, piracy, and revenue laws have long provided for the official seizure and forfeiture of tangible property used in the commission of criminal activity, the statute marked an important expansion of governmental power by authorizing the forfeiture of proceeds from the sale of illegal goods and by creating an express and novel protection for innocent owners. Pp. 118-123.

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