Drug conspirator can’t be required to forfeit money he never received, SCOTUS says

U.S. Supreme Court

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A man who worked at his brother’s hardware store, which sold an iodine-based product for water purification that was used to make methamphetamine, doesn’t have to forfeit profits he never earned despite his conspiracy conviction for his role in the sales, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

A conspirator can’t be held jointly and severally liable for property acquired by another conspirator, the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous opinion (PDF) by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch did not participate in the case.

The court ruled for Terry Michael Honeycutt, who managed sales and inventory for a Tennessee hardware store owned by his brother. The government sought nearly $270,000–the hardware’s store’s profits from the iodine-based product’s sales–from both brothers under a drug forfeiture law. Honeycutt was a salaried employee with no financial stake in the store.

The government had claimed Honeycutt could be required to forfeit the entire amount under “the bedrock principle of conspiracy liability” in which conspirators are legally responsible for each other’s actions. Sotomayor said that argument ignored “the plain text and structure” of the forfeiture law.

The decision could affect white-collar crime prosecutions because of a similar forfeiture law used in mail and wire fraud cases, according to a preview of the case by the New York Times DealBook blog.


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