1. Whether the forfeiture of property based on being utilized in the commission of a crime is subject to the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution.
2. Whether, as part of an excessive fines inquiry, a defendant facing forfeiture of property as a result of criminal sentence is entitled to demonstrate that the forfeiture would deprive them of their livelihood.
1. Yes, property forfeitures as part of a person’s criminal sentence are subject to the Excessive Fines clause of the U.S. Constitution, and whether it is unconstitutionally excessive should be assessed through a full application of the Bajakajian factors.
2. Yes, as part of an excessive fines inquiry, a defendant facing forfeiture of property is entitled to demonstrate that the forfeiture would deprive them of their livelihood.
On April 3, 2012, Kenneth Jouppi, a pilot and the owner of the airplane at issue in this case, helped a passenger load cargo onto the plane in preparation for a flight from Fairbanks Airport in Alaska to Beaver Village, Alaska. Before departure, state troopers executed a search warrant of the plane and discovered nine gallons of beer in plain sight. Because Beaver Village is a local option community that, pursuant to a local statute, prohibits the importation of alcoholic beverages, Jouppi was sentenced to imprisonment, a fine, and the forfeiture of the plane used to facilitate the illegal transportation into the community. Jouppi brought suit arguing that the forfeiture of the airplane violated the Excessive Fines clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The District Court for the Fourth Judicial Circuit held that forfeiture of the plane was not required because Jouppi was apprehended before transport of the alcohol. The Court of Appeals reversed based on a different reading of the statute at issue; it held that forfeiture was required if transport was completed or attempted and remanded the case back to the District Court.
On remand, the District Court ruled that the forfeiture of Jouppi’s plane constituted an unconstitutionally excessive fine because its forfeiture would be “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of Jouppi’s offense. The Court reached this ruling first, because the value of the plane was nearly ten times greater than the maximum fine that could have been imposed as a penalty for violation of the statute; and second, because Jouppi’s offense was “not nearly as egregious as other conduct that could result in mandatory forfeiture of a plane under the applicable statutes.” The State appealed the ruling.
Appellate Court’s Reasoning
The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the Excessive Fines Clause did not apply to the forfeiture of Jouppi’s plane because the plane was merely property not entitled to constitutional protections. The Court instead characterized the forfeiture of the plane as against Jouppi’s person because it was part of the sentence in his criminal case, and thus subject to excessive fines scrutiny.
The State next argued that even if the Excessive Fines Clause did apply, the forfeiture of Jouppi’s plane was not “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of Jouppi’s offense and therefore not in violation of the excessive fines clause. The Court noted that state and federal courts generally apply the “Bajakajian factors” when assessing whether a forfeiture is “grossly disproportional,” and here, the district court failed to do so sufficiently; its reasoning about the value of the plane as compared to the potential fine was merely cursory. As a result, the Court remanded the case to the district court for a fuller application of the Bajakajian factors in order to discern whether such forfeiture was unconstitutionally excessive.
Additionally, the Court pointed out that when assessing whether a fine is unconstitutionally excessive, some courts have supplemented the existing Bajakajian factors with an additional factor–whether a forfeiture would deprive the defendant of their livelihood, and specifically, their future ability to earn a living. In light of this, the Court also required that on remand that Jouppi be afforded the opportunity to put forth evidence that the forfeiture of his airplane would deprive him of a “future ability to earn a living.”
You can read the court’s opinion here.
Alaska v. Jouppi
Court of Appeals of Alaska
September 23, 2022
519 P.3d 653 (Alaska Ct. App. 2022)
2022 WL 4394382