Honeycutt v. United States: Summary of Ruling
The federal statute, 21 U.S.C. Sec. 853, that mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes does not impose joint and several liability for property that a defendant’s co-conspirator derived from the crime, but that the defendant himself did not acquire, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 5 in Honeycutt v. United States.
Terry Honeycutt worked at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony Honeycutt. The store sold iodine used in production of methamphetamine.
The brothers were indicted for selling the iodine while knowing or having reason to believe it would be used for the production of methamphetamine.
The Government sought forfeiture against the brothers of approximately $270,000, which represented the store’s profits from the sale of the iodine.
Tony pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $200,000. Terry was convicted at trial.
Despite the fact that Terry had no ownership interest in the store and did not benefit personally from the sales, the Government insisted that Terry was jointly liable for the profits of the conspiracy. The Sixth Circuit agreed, and ordered Terry to pay the remaining $70,000.
In a 8-0 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the forfeiture statute does not impose such joint and several liability.
The Court began with an illustration: A mastermind farmer pays a college student $300 a month to sell the farmer’s marijuana on campus. Over a year, the student earned $3,600 but the farmer made $3 million. If joint and several liability applies, the student would owe $3 million, even though the student never acquired any proceeds beyond $3,600.
The Court said the statute, by its terms, limits forfeiture to “tainted property” derived from the crime itself. This limitation indicates that the statute does not intend joint and several liability because, by its nature, that would require forfeiture of untainted property.
In the farmer example, the college student would be liable to pay $2,996,400 of untainted assets that have no connection whatsoever to the student’s participation in the crime.
The statute also requires the forfeited property to be “obtained … as a result of” the crime. An individual does not “obtain” property that was acquired by someone else, the Court said.
“Section 853(a)’s limitation of forfeiture to tainted property acquired or used by the defendant, together with the plain text of Sec. 853(a)(1), foreclose joint and several liability for co-conspirators,” the Court held.
Since Terry never obtained any tainted property as a result of the crime, Terry cannot be held jointly and severally liable for the profits.