Drug Forfeiture Case Decided by United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in Honeycutt v. United States ruled that a man who worked at his brother’s hardware store and sold an iodine-based product that could be used to make methamphetamine was not required to forfeit profits that he never earned, despite his conspiracy conviction for his role in the sales. The Honeycutt case has the potential to shed significant light on the extent of liability of conspirators while also limiting the government’s power to seize assets from entities who are involved in a criminal enterprise.

The Facts of the Case

The Honeycutt case concerns two Tennessee brothers who were convicted on drug conspiracy charges. In the involved action, the government sought nearly $270,000 from sale of the iodine based product. Over the course of three years, the store in question reported sales of over 20,000 bottles of “Polar Pure” water purifiers at over a $270,000 profit. Law enforcement instructed the store owners that the purifiers could be used to manufacture methamphetamine. One of the men pleaded guilty to role in the conspiracy and was ordered to pay $200,000 of these profits. The government then sought the remaining $70,000 as a criminal asset against the man’s brother.

The district court declined to order forfeiture because the man was a salaried employee who had not personally received any profits from sales. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth circuit reversed this decision on the basis that the brothers could be held “jointly and severally liable”. The Supreme Court later granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split on the question.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion

The Supreme Court’s opinion begins by noting that federal forfeiture statutes serve important governmental interests and require forfeiture after conviction for certain crimes. These forfeitures, however, must be consistent with the structure of the statutes.

Justice Sotomayor, who wrote the opinion, provides the example of a hypothetical farmer who grows and distributes marijuana on local college campuses while a college student is paid $300 a month from the illegal proceed to deliver packages of the drug. Sotomayor ends this example by asking whether the college delivery worker should be convicted of the criminal drug distribution conspiracy or just for the $3,600 the student received for their services? Sotomayor notes that student should only be held liable for the $3,600 that he actually received. This decision relied on two factors. First, a person cannot obtain property that was obtained by someone else. Second, Sotomoyar’s opinion found that federal statutes are limited to forfeiture of assets tainted by a crime.

The Legacy Left by Honeycutt

The Supreme Court in Honeycutt did not explicitly answer what it means for a criminal to benefit from a criminal conspiracy. The only guidance provided in this issue is that Justice Sotomayor notes that the forfeiture statute extends to property obtained by a defendant. It remains uncertain exactly how the Supreme Court will define this issue. Two of the Supreme Court Justices were noticeably silent in the Honeycutt case. Justice Alito remained silent during the hearing. Also noticeably, Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision.

This decision in combination with a case decided earlier this year in which Justice Thomas questioned the legal basis for civil asset forfeiture have the potential to influence white-collar crime prosecutions because a similar forfeiture law is used in mail and wire fraud cases.

Drug Forfeiture in Massachusetts

It is typical for Massachusetts state prosecutors to seek forfeiture in drug cases. Most often, the assistant district attorneys attempt to seize cars, cash, and electronics which they believe are connected to drug dealing. Defendants react very strongly when they learn that, in addition to being charged with a crime, the government is also trying to seize their property.

Call Attorney Henry Fasoldt, 617-338-0009, if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime and the government is trying to seize your property.