• U.S.


2 minute read

PERHAPS NO ONE FITS THE DESCRIPtion “innocent bystander” as well as Tina Bennis. Certainly when she let her husband John take their rundown 1977 Pontiac sedan to work one day in 1988, she did not count on him driving it into Detroit, picking up a prostitute, engaging in a sexual act in the car’s front seat–and getting caught. Nor did she know that the state of Michigan would be legally permitted to seize the car involved in a prostitution arrest, even though, in this case, it was co-owned by Tina. With the support of an odd coalition of civil rights liberals and property-rights conservatives, Bennis has pressed a lawsuit to recover her half of the $600 value of the car. Last week the Supreme Court surprised the legal community by ruling against her. Court watchers were most surprised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had appeared sympathetic to Bennis during oral arguments.

The Michigan law is being used to deter “Johns” from coming into Detroit from the suburbs to solicit prostitutes. According to George Ward, chief assistant prosecutor in Wayne County, the law resulted in the seizure of 2,927 vehicles last year. As for any unwitting wives, Ward asks, “What about the idea that the residents of Sheffield Street are even more innocent, and shouldn’t have to put up with the vice market of prostitution?” The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ginsburg, agreed that only the nature of the crime, not the nature of the ownership, need be considered in forfeitures.

Bennis’ lawyer, Stefan Herpel, had argued that the government should be required to prove guilt before seizing property. The decision, he says, means, for example, “that a mother who loans a car to a daughter is at risk of losing that car.” Many legal experts agree. “It’s hard to see why Tina Bennis should suffer because of the sins of her husband,” says Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “The government seems to have an insatiable appetite in this area.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com