TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court on Double Jeopardy

June 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE: In 1992, Charles Wesley Arlt and James Ely Wren were convicted of violating federal drug and money laundering laws. Prosecutors charged that over a 15-month period their ring transported 36 tons of chemicals to southern California, then distributed the chemicals to makers of the illegal drug methamphetamine. Arlt and Wren pleaded “not guilty” and claimed the chemicals were used in a gold mine Arlt owned in the California desert. The men were sentenced to life in prison, but the government deprived them of more than their liberty.

CHARLES ARLT, Defendant: They took everything we had. We didn’t hide a dime, every transaction was done by the law.

JAMES WREN, Defendant: The government took vehicles, automobiles, and they took aircraft, they took–

MR. KAYE: After the men were indicted on criminal charges, the government filed a civil forfeiture suit in order to confiscate their property. Wren’s lawyer, Shawn Perez, says the government punished the men twice for the same crime. That was double jeopardy, says Perez, a violation of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

SHAWN PEREZ, Lawyer: I see nothing wrong with punishing a person once, and the Constitution says, yes, we can punish you once, but we cannot punish you twice for the same offense in two separate proceedings. Arlt and Wren were punished twice by the forfeiture of their property. After they had already been prosecuted and convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, the government came back and said, we’re taking everything you own–resulted in a second punishment.

MR. KAYE: Government prosecutors appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The assets confiscated by the federal government were worth close to a million dollars. They included this shrimp boat, as well as a helicopter and a plane. There was a pleasure boat, 11 cars, 138 silver bars, and more than $1/2 million in cash and in bank accounts. The government maintains confiscating this property wasn’t punishment since the defendants never legally earned it. In order to put the men in jail, the government had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the standard required for a criminal conviction. But to seize assets in civil proceedings, authorities need only prove there is probable cause connecting the crime to the property. Many defense lawyers claim law enforcement has been too eager to seize property since they get to use the proceeds. In the last decade, the U.S. Justice Department has seized more than $4 billion worth of assets.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Now more on this ruling and other action at the court today from NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor, correspondent for the “American Lawyer” and “Legal Times.” And Stuart, starting with the forfeiture case, there were actually–there was a California case and another case, but the same ruling on the same issue. Explain that.

STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: Yes. The court ruled lopsidedly for the United States Government in both cases, holding by nine/zero in the Los Angeles case that we just saw that the defendants lose because taking away the proceeds of their crime, taking away things they bought with drug money is not punishment. The more controversial ruling that the court reached by eight to one with Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting was in a Michigan case in which the court had found marijuana in a man’s house and growing nearby and had initially forfeited the house for–as an instrumentality of the crime and then later prosecuted him and got him sentenced to a five-year prison sentence. The court upheld that, saying that didn’t violate the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment because taking a man’s house away for having marijuana in it was not, the court said, punishment for purposes of the double jeopardy clause, even though it would be punishment for purposes of other constitutional provisions–for example, the Eighth Amendment clause that prohibits excessive fines.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So that just to be clear, the double jeopardy clause is–just briefly explain that–and, and the civil procedure that doesn’t violate it.

MR. TAYLOR: The Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause bars anyone from being punished twice in two separate proceedings for the same offense, so that if you’re convicted of something and sent to jail, they can’t prosecute you again. There’s been a lot of argumentation about what that covers and what it doesn’t cover. These two cases came from lower courts that had held that it violates the double jeopardy clause to either prosecute somebody and put ’em in prison for a crime and then subsequently try and forfeit his property for the same crime, or do it in the reverse order. The lower courts held that you can do one but you can’t do both. The Supreme Court held today that they were wrong, you can do both, and as a result, hundreds and hundreds of appeals by convicted prisoners all over the country who had been hoping they would be able to win their cases under the logic of these lower court decisions are now going to be thrown out.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: And the logic of the court today was that it wasn’t double jeopardy because what?

MR. TAYLOR: The logic of the court was it is not–that a civil forfeiture proceeding under the statutes that Congress adopted in recent years, which are very broad power for the government to forfeit either contraband, such as drugs, or fruits of crime, such as drug money, or things you buy with it, or instrumentalities in crime, such as a house in which drug crimes are committed, that the government can forfeit all those things in single proceedings, and it is not punishment, the court held today, to do that, even as in this case, the Michigan case, you’re basically taking someone’s house away because they had marijuana in it. That is not punishment, the court said today.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: And you said this was a big victory because all of these prisoners now cannot appeal on the basis of double jeopardy, waiting to appeal. Is this a huge victory for the Justice Department?

MR. TAYLOR: Not an unexpected one, but one that they’re very relieved about, because after two of the federal appeals courts had held that it is double jeopardy to have successive proceedings, forfeiture and criminal prosecution. There were hundreds of convictions they had or forfeitures they had that were in jeopardy, and prisoners all over the country had filed appeals hoping that if this case, if this case had gone the other way in the Supreme Court, suddenly they could win their cases too, and so the government’s breathing a sigh of relief that they now don’t have to worry about that.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let’s turn briefly to the Paula Jones case. What was the issue here?

MR. TAYLOR: The issue is whether the Supreme Court should hear President Clinton’s appeal of a lower court decision. He is arguing–the President is and his lawyers are–that her lawsuit, her sexual harassment lawsuit, should be basically dismissed until after he leaves office. His argument that a President can’t be sued by any individual for money while he’s in office, even for unofficial acts that took place before he was in office. He lost that claim in the lower courts. The federal appeals court for the Eighth Circuit ruled that this suit could go forward. He went to the Supreme Court saying, please reverse this. The Supreme Court today, without comment, said they would hear the case which effectively postpones all proceedings in the case until after the election.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So what exactly does this mean? I mean, does it have any other broader implications for the law or for this particular case, or–

MR. TAYLOR: It, it does because there’s a long history of presidents arguing that they can’t be subjected to various forms of legal proceedings, and the court has ruled in their favor sometimes and against them sometimes. For example, the United States versus Nixon, during Watergate the court held that President Nixon could be forced to turn over the tapes. But in 1982, in another case involving President Nixon, the court ruled that he could not be sued and now President can be sued for official acts ever, and President Clinton is hoping to extend that to cover him for things he did that weren’t official acts and before he took office to the extent of suspending the suit until after he leaves office. He’s not claiming the suit is dead forever. He’s claiming that it has to be suspended until after he leaves office.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Was this a surprise? I mean, was this expected?

MR. TAYLOR: Umm, I don’t think people were betting heavily either way. It only takes four votes of the Supreme Court to decide what they decided today, which is to hear a case. They haven’t decided to rule in his favor yet. We probably won’t know for about another year whether he’s going to win the case or not on that issue. The Justice Department–

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: By this time–excuse me–the election will be over and gone, but he’ll be into another term.

MR. TAYLOR: That’s correct. And it’s possible that if he loses this case in the Supreme Court, we could have a full-blown trial of the Paula Jones case in President Clinton’s second term, if he has one. Umm, but the court has not really by granting a hearing in the case, has not really shown its hand as to which way it’s going to rule.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Now is this one where–well, how–do they have to vote in order to decide to hear a case, and is there a public vote on it? I mean, do we know how the vote went?

MR. TAYLOR: They do have to vote. We don’t know how the vote went. The only way we would know is if somebody publicly dissented. Then we’d know how they voted, but nobody did. That doesn’t mean the court was unanimous in voting to hear it. It’s fairly routine. Any time there are four of the nine want to hear a case, they hear it. Usually you don’t know how they voted.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. And so we can expect this one in the next term of the court.

MR. TAYLOR: Uh, that’s correct. It will probably go to the Supreme Court for all argument after the election, although it’s conceivable that it would be argued in October or November before the election.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: That’ll be interesting. Well, thank you, Stuart, for joining us.

MR. TAYLOR: Thank you.