Case of Seized Vehicle May Bolster 'Innocence' Defense

INNOCENCE is not always the best defense in a court of law - especially if one is the owner of property seized in connection with a crime. Just ask Tina Bennis.

Mrs. Bennis's husband was arrested in Detroit after he was spotted with a prostitute in the family car. Under a Michigan nuisance law, the vehicle was seized, and a county court ruled that it was to be forfeited.

Bennis, however, co-owns the car and was not willing to forfeit her share of it quite so easily - even after the Michigan Supreme Court ordered her to give it up.

In the first legal hearing of its kind, and in what some jurists call the ''sexiest case of the term,'' the Supreme Court of the United States will decide if Bennis's innocence is a viable defense.

The case is one of two important constitutional questions the high court will hear in what has otherwise been a very quiet court term.

Legal access

The second case deals with Arizona prisoners who want more access to law libraries and legal help.

Coming in the midst of congressional initiatives that cut funds for such programs and limit prisoners' legal access, the case represents another hard choice for the high court. It must place new demands on already overburdened state and federal prisons or curtail legal assistance for a significant number of prisoners.

In the case involving the Michigan automobile seizure, the court will weigh the innocence of an individual against the right of a state to conduct a vigorous law-enforcement campaign. If Bennis wins, the court will define for the first time in US legal history what is called ''innocent owner defense.''

Currently, innocence is not considered as important in a case of civil forfeiture as the issue of whether or not the owner implicitly or explicitly consented to the use of the property.

The state of Michigan will argue that drastic measures are needed to battle urban crime and vice. It will say forfeiture is an effective weapon in stamping out a severe urban problem - one in which the automobile is a chief means of conducting the crime. A friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Michigan states that in May 1995, 150 of 221 autos seized in prostitution cases were from outside Detroit.

Several experts think the court took the Bennis case to carve out more legal room for consideration of innocence.

''If you want to say innocence is a defense, what better case to pick than this one?'' asks Vicki Jackson of Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C.

In the Arizona case, the court will review how much detail the nation's judicial branch must get into in overseeing the rights of prisoners.

The case arose when Arizona prisoners brought suit against state-prison officials for not giving adequate help to illiterate or non-English speaking prisoners and limiting access to law libraries they said were often inadequate. A federal lower court, and then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the prisoner's grievances were real, and ordered the state of Arizona to improve its services.

The question hinges on language in a Supreme Court ruling over a decade ago (Bounds v. Smith) that requires prisons to provide ''meaningful access'' to the courts. The prisoners say that without language instruction or assistance, the 15 percent of non-English speaking prisoners in Arizona can't have meaningful access.

Prison oversight

A significant increase in judicial oversight of prisons will be required for state courts to comply with the level and degree of detail demanded by the Arizona ruling.

The Rehnquist-led Supreme Court has shown a marked disinterest in courts overseeing institutions, whether they be hospitals, schools, or prisons.

Yet it is the Supreme Court's role to decide if a citizen's constitutional rights are being abridged, says David Cole of Georgetown University. This is especially true for those who are disfavored by the majority of the society.

''If we left prisoners' rights up to Congress, they would have no rights,'' he argues. ''The court is supposed to operate outside the prevailing political winds.''

Both cases will be ruled on in the spring.

On Dec. 5 and 6, the high court will hear two major cases of the current term. The first addresses racial gerrymandering in North Carolina and Texas.

The second focuses on whether two corporate giants will gain a monopoly in the telecommunications market if given the license to develop emerging technology.

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