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United States v. Ursery 1996

United States v. Ursery 1996

Petitioner: United States

Respondent: Guy Ursery

Petitioner's Claim: That convicting Ursery for growing marijuana and then taking the house in which he grew the marijuana did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Drew S. Days III, U.S. Solicitor General

Chief Lawyers for Respondent: Lawrence Robbins, David Michael, Jeffry K. Finer

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: June 24, 1996

Decision: The Supreme Court affirmed Ursery's conviction and approved the forfeiture proceeding against his house.

Significance: On one level, Ursery said a civil forfeiture that is not punitive does not raise Double Jeopardy concerns. On another level, the case indicated the Supreme Court would give Congress as much power as possible to fight the war on drugs.

Guy Ursery grew marijuana in his home in Flint, Michigan. Marijuana is an illegal drug that people smoke to get "high." Ursery grew the marijuana for himself and his family and friends. He worked as an autoworker, however, not a drug dealer.

Double Trouble

Based on a tip from Ursery's former girlfriend, Michigan police raided Ursery's home and found marijuana seeds, stems, stalks, and a light for growing the plants. Under federal law, the government is allowed to take away personal property that is used to make illegal drugs. This is called forfeiture because it makes a person forfeit his property. The federal government began a forfeiture proceeding against Ursery's home. Ursery eventually settled the case by paying the government $13,250.

Federal law also makes it a crime to make illegal drugs. Before the forfeiture proceeding was over, the United States charged Ursery with violating the law by growing marijuana. A jury found Ursery guilty and the judge sentenced him to five years and three months in prison.

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment says no person "shall . . . be twice put in jeopardy of life and limb" for the same crime. This means the government cannot prosecute or punish a person twice for the same crime. Ursery appealed his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He argued that the forfeiture proceeding and criminal conviction were double punishment that violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. The Sixth Circuit agreed and reversed Ursery's conviction, so the United States took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Forfeiture Not Punishment

With an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States and affirmed Ursery's conviction. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids successive punishments for the same crime. Imprisonment after a criminal conviction is certainly punishment. The question, then, was whether the forfeiture proceeding was punishment.

Rehnquist said there are two types of civil forfeitures. "In personam" forfeitures are cases in which the government fines a person for unlawful behavior. Rehnquist said these fines can be a form of punishment, meaning they count as punishment under the Double Jeopardy Clause.

"In rem" forfeitures are cases in which the government directly sues the property to be forfeited. The government punishes the property that was being used for criminal activity by taking it away from the criminal. In such cases, the government does not punish the criminal. "In rem" forfeiture cases, then, do not usually count as punishment under the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Rehnquist analyzed the history of Supreme Court forfeiture cases. The most important example was Various Items of Personal Property v. United States (1931). In that case, a corporation was using property to make alcohol during Prohibition in the 1920s, when making alcohol was illegal. After convicting the corporation on criminal charges, the government sued the property in a forfeiture action. The Supreme Court said that did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. It said, "the forfeiture is not part of the punishment for the criminal offense."

For the same reasons, the Court decided that Ursery's conviction and the forfeiture proceeding against his home did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. The forfeiture proceeding was not designed to punish Ursery for growing marijuana. It was designed to take away property that was being used to commit a crime. In effect, the government punished Ursery once with imprisonment and his property once with forfeiture. The government punished nobody twice, so it did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.


The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is an office in the U.S. Department of Justice. Formed in 1973, the DEA enforces federal drug laws in the United States. Its primary goal is to prevent criminals from making, smuggling, and transporting illegal drugs in the country. The DEA works with individual states and foreign countries to stop drugs at their source in the United States and around the world. It also works to enforce regulations on prescription drugs.

Asset forfeiture is an important tool for the DEA. Federal laws allow the DEA to seize valuable property that is used to violate drug laws. The DEA sells most of the property at auctions and puts the money into an Asset Forfeiture Fund. That fund helps victims and crime fighting programs across the nation.

The DEA also uses seized property to help communities with drug problems. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for example, the DEA gave two drug stash houses to an organization called United Neighbors Against Drugs. The organization uses the homes to run drug abuse prevention, job training, and education programs for neighborhood adults and children.

Taking Property is Punishment

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion, which means he disagreed with the Court's decision. Stevens said there was no way to characterize forfeiture of Ursery's home as anything other than punishment. The house was neither illegal by itself nor bought with illegal money. It was not harming society. The only reason to take it was to punish Ursery and discourage others from breaking the law. Stevens said such forfeitures should count as punishment under the Double Jeopardy Clause.


Forfeiture laws are a weapon in the war on drugs in the United States. Ursery was a sign the Supreme Court would give Congress all the power it could to fight that war. In another case the same year, Bennis v. Michigan (1996), the Supreme Court said the government could seize a car that was used for illegal sex with a prostitute even when the car's coowner did not know about the illegal activity. With forfeiture laws, then, the government hopes to take a bite out of crime.

Suggestions for further reading

Bernards, Neal. The War on Drugs: Examining Cause and Effect Relationships. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991.

Drug Enforcement Administration website, [Online] (Accessed August 8, 2000).

Gottfried, Ted. Should Drugs Be Legalized? Twenty First Century Books, 2000.

Holmes, Burnham. The Fifth Amendment. Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Jaffe, Jerome H., ed. Encyclopedia of Drugs and Alcohol. 1995 ed., s.v. "U.S. Government."

Johnson, Joan. America's War on Drugs. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Kronenwetter, Michael. Drugs in America: The Users, the Suppliers, the War on Drugs. Englewood Cliffs: Messner, 1990.

Powell, Jillian. Drug Trafficking. Copper Beach Books, 1997.

Santamaria, Peggy. Drugs and Politics. Rosen Publishing Group, 1994.

Stefoff, Rebecca. The Drug Enforcement Administration. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Terkel, Susan Neiburg. Should Drugs Be Legalized? New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Thompson, Stephen P., ed. The War on Drugs: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Wier, William. In the Shadow of the Dope Fiend: America's War on Drugs. Archon, 1997.

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