United States v. Ursery (1996)

United States v. Ursery (1996)


Whether the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment prohibits the State from both punishing a defendant for a criminal offense and forcing the forfeiture of defendant’s property for the same offense in a separate civil trial.


The Supreme Court granted Certiorari and combined two cases for this decision: Ursery from the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Arlt and Wren from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Police found cannabis seeds, stems, stalks, and a growlight at Guy Ursery’s home in Michigan. The United States instituted civil forfeiture proceedings against the house, alleging that it had used for several years to facilitate the unlawful processing and distribution of a controlled substance.

Afterwards, Ursery was indicted for manufacturing cannabis. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the criminal charge on the basis that the civil forfeiture counted as a “punishment” in terms of the Double Jeopardy Clause and so had already been punished for the crime and could not be again.

Charles Wesley Arlt and James Wren were convicted of conspiracy to aid and abet the manufacture of methamphetamine, conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, and numerous accounts of money laundering. Prior to the conviction the United States filed a civil in rem complaint against various property seized from Arlt, Wren, and a corporation controlled by Arlt. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated their criminal charges under the same theory, applying United States v. Halper, 490 U. S. 435 (1989) in which the Supreme Court determined that some civil penalties can constitute a punishment.


The Double Jeopardy Clause within the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution reads: “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

In United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms, 465 U. S. 354 (1984), the Supreme Court laid out a two-part test: looking at congressional intent of forfeiture and whether the statutes were so punitive as to negate congressional intention. “Unless the forfeiture action was intended as punishment, so that the proceeding is essentially criminal in character, the Double Jeopardy Clause is not applicable.” Id. at 362.


Chief Justice Rehnquist notes the history of common law civil forfeiture cases in which the State could not undergo the process without first getting a criminal conviction. The seminal case looking at the relationship between the Double Jeopardy Clause and civil forfeiture is Various Items of Personal Property v. United States, 228 U. S. 663 (1974), where the Supreme Court ruled that in rem proceedings are not punishment for the criminal offense, as opposed to in personum civil penalties such as fines.

The Court differentiated Halper by stating that case was narrowly about civil penalties, unlike these cases.

Applying the two part test from Firearms, the Court found that Congress’ intent was clearly for these seizures to be civil proceedings. On the second prong they found that there was “little evidence” that the statutes in question were contrary to congressional intent.


The Supreme Court held in an opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, that civil forfeitures do not constitute “punishment” nor “criminal” in terms of the Double Jeopardy Clause; both cases were reversed.

Justice Kennedy also wrote a concurring opinion agreeing with the findings; Justices Scalia and Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion, in which they stated that in their view the Double Jeopardy Clause only prohibits further prosecutions, not further punishments.

Justice Stevens wrote a partial dissent, arguing that since there is no evidence Ursery purchased him home with proceeds from the cannabis that Ursery should be upheld.

Jack Fruth
New York Law School | + posts

Jack Fruth is a first-year law student, interested in the legacy market, Delta-8 related issues and cannabis law at New York Law School