Why Does The U.S. Government Sue Inanimate Objects?

Image courtesy of Joe Gratz

When Justice Department went after Mesopotamian artifacts imported by Hobby Lobby, the lawsuit was actually filed against the ancient clay artifacts and not the retailer. Likewise, when the government determined that a Las Vegas casino had too much gold, it arrested and sued a solid gold rooster statue. Though they don’t always make headlines, such cases have a long, sometimes hilarious, history in U.S. law.

These lawsuits all involve what’s known as in rem jurisdiction, where inanimate objects are named as the defendants because those objects were created or obtained through illegal activity.

What kinds of property are taken in these cases? They frequently involve land or cash, but just about any asset could be a defendant.

Here are a few examples of higher-profile in rem cases, including two that reached the Supreme Court, that cover everything from a ranging from a few thousand bucks in cash to a 65,000 pounds of shark parts.

United States v. Ninety-five barrels (more or less) alleged apple cider vinegar

In this 1924 case before the Supreme Court, the Food and Drug Administration alleged that the Excelsior brand apple cider vinegar in question was misbranded, since it was made from “dried or evaporated apples,” and seized it.

The claimant, Douglas Packing Company, admitted that the vinegar was made from evaporated apples, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t apple cider vinegar.

“Deception may result from the use of statements not technically false or which may be literally true,” Associate Justice Pierce Butler observed in his decision. That’s still true of advertising claims 93 years later.

The Court concluded that the company was acting against the Food and Drugs Act, since apple cider vinegar should be made from fresh apple cider, not dehydrated apples. This is still the standard the FDA uses in apple cider vinegar labeling.

United States v. Articles of Hazardous Substance

In this case, the “articles” were children’s pajamas made by the Troxler Hosiery Company, which U.S. Marshals seized because they had been treated with a chemical that was deemed a hazardous substance.

The specific chemical — tris (2,3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate, or just “TRIS” — was a flame retardant used on children’s pajamas that was found to be potentially carcinogenic. In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of TRIS in new children’s pajamas.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina concluded that the federal government did not have the right to seize the pajamas from the premises, since the information used to obtain a warrant to seize them didn’t sufficiently establish probable cause.

United States v. Eight thousand eight hundred and fifty dollars ($8,850) in United States Currency

What’s the U.S. government got against its own money? These civil forfeiture cases involve the government seizing large amounts of money from people suspected of drug trafficking. In one case, a district court decided that $32,750 was seized during an illegal search of a suspect’s car, reversing the forfeiture.

You’re especially likely to lose your wads of cash at border crossings, since there are limits on how much you can bring in or out of the country without declaring it to Customs.

That’s what happened in the $8,850 case, which reached the Supreme Court in 1983. Customs officers seized money from the owner of the money, who didn’t declare it when flying into the United States. (You can now bring up to $10,000 across borders without having to declare it.)

The government didn’t begin actual forfeiture proceedings until 18 months later, after the owner of the money had already been convicted of knowingly and willfully making false statements to a United States customs officer, a felony. Her attorney claimed that the delay violated her right to due process. The Supreme Court did not agree.

United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins

The Coast Guard seized 32.3 tons of shark fins from a ship based in Hong Kong but registered in the United States. Litigation in this case was over a loophole in the law that restricted fishing for sharks and removing their fins or other parts and tossing out the rest of the carcass.

The loophole that the ship carrying the disputed 64,695 pounds of fins exploited was that the law restricted fishing vessels from catching sharks solely for their fins, but the King Diamond II didn’t fish. It met fishing vessels from various countries at sea and bought shark fins from them. The Ninth Circuit court reversed the forfeiture of the shark fins.

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