2253638192_1587a734ca_zCivil forfeitures have been controversial for a number of years. The underlying idea – that a person can be said to have forfeited his or her rights in a particular item of property by using it to commit a crime – is difficult to challenge, but some observers believe that the remedy has been abused in some jurisdictions. Indeed, the Washington Post claimed that some police departments had seized property owned by persons who had not even been charged with a crime. At the end of its January term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to take on this contentious issue, allowing a petition for leave to appeal in The People ex rel. Hartrich v. 2010 Harley-Davidson, a case from the Fifth District.

2010 Harley-Davidson began in 2014. The claimant was the sole owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle valued at $35,000. At the time, the claimant’s husband had had his driver’s license revoked due to a conviction for driving under the influence. The husband suggested to his wife that they go for a ride on the motorcycle. With the wife driving, the couple drove to an establishment twelve blocks from their home. During the evening, the wife drank nothing, but by the time they left just after midnight, the husband was allegedly intoxicated.

The husband nevertheless insisted on driving the motorcycle home. He jumped on the bike and told his wife she could either ride with him or walk home. She relented, but during the short drive home, the couple was stopped by a police officer. The husband was given a breath test, which indicated that his blood alcohol concentration was above the legal limit. The husband ultimately pled guilty to a charge of aggravated DUI in return for dismissal of a charge of driving on a revoked license.

The State’s Attorney filed an action seeking forfeiture of the motorcycle, even though it was solely owned by the wife. In his complaint, the State’s Attorney alleged that the motorcycle was used with the knowledge and consent of the owner in the commission of a crime – aggravated DUI. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered an order forfeiting the motorcycle to the State. The wife filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing both that there was insufficient evidence that she had consented to her husband’s use and that the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines.

The Appellate Court rejected the wife’s insufficient evidence challenge, concluding that the fact that the wife had ridden home as a passenger was sufficient to support a reasonable inference that she had consented to her husband’s driving. Although the wife testified that she joined her husband on the bike because no woman would want to walk twelve blocks home after midnight, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court was not required to believe her testimony.

The Court then turned to the Eighth Amendment challenge. A forfeiture violates the excessive fines clause if it is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. The courts administer this test by considering three factors: (1) the inherent gravity of the offense compared with the harshness of the penalty; (2) whether the property was an integral part of the commission of the crime; and (3) whether the criminal activity involving the property was extensive in terms of time and/or spatial use.

The Appellate Court held that although the husband’s offense was serious, the wife’s conduct – at most, a consenting passenger (and disputing even that much) – was less serious. In comparison, the forfeiture of a $35,000 motorcycle of which she was sole owner was particularly harsh. The parties agreed that the motorcycle was obviously an integral part of the commission of the crime of aggravated DUI, but the Court concluded that the third factor weighed at least somewhat against forfeiture given that the drive had only been approximately twelve blocks. In light of its weighing of these factors, the Appellate Court held that the forfeiture of the wife’s motorcycle constituted an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment.

We expect 2010 Harley Davidson to be decided by next winter.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Valerie Everett (no changes).