The United States Supreme Court established the exclusionary rule in order to deter law enforcement officers from conducting illegal searches and seizures. By excluding illegally seized evidence, the Court looked to provide American citizens with a remedy to uphold their Fourth Amendment rights. Traditionally, the exclusionary rule excluded only illegally obtained evidence in criminal proceedings. In One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, however, the Court applied the exclusionary rule to civil forfeiture proceedings because the forfeiture statute was quasi-criminal in nature: like a criminal proceeding, its object was to penalize the commission of an offense.
The forfeiture statute upon which the Plymouth decision was based has since become inapplicable to modern forfeiture proceedings, thus bringing Plymouth's viability into question. Additionally, following Plymouth, the Court adopted a balancing test that weighs the benefits of deterrence against the costs to society in determining whether to apply the exclusionary rule. The Court's cost-benefit analysis, however, has never extended the exclusionary rule beyond the criminal trial context. Because of this, lower state and federal courts have questioned which approach-- Plymouth or the cost-benefit analysis--they should apply in the context of civil forfeiture proceedings.
In United States v. Marrocco, a recent Seventh Circuit case, Judge Easterbrook distinguished Plymouth, stating that the forfeiture statute before the court was civil and not intended as punishment for the commission of a crime. In Marrocco, the forfeiture proceeding did not necessitate a conviction of a criminal offense. Thus, it would appear that the Seventh Circuit would employ the cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the exclusionary rule would be applied in the context of civil forfeiture. The evolution of forfeiture statutes since Plymouth, combined with the Supreme Court's cost-benefit analysis--which has never extended the exclusionary rule beyond the criminal trial context--poses a serious threat to the application of the exclusionary rule in civil forfeiture proceedings. In weighing the benefits of deterrence against the costs, the Supreme Court has consistently focused on criminal prosecution as the sole objective of law enforcement; however, the changing objectives of law enforcement agencies have led forfeiture to become ingrained into mainstream police practices. Because of this, regardless of whether Plymouth is overturned or the cost-benefit analysis is used, the exclusionary rule should be applied because civil forfeiture's unique role in modern policing would result in a high level of deterrence that would not be outweighed by the minimal costs associated with the relatively government-friendly proceeding.
Daniel W. Kaminski,
Conclude to Exclude: The Exclusionary Rule's Role in Civil Forfeiture Proceedings,
Seventh Circuit Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/seventhcircuitreview/vol6/iss1/9