You properly denounce Philadelphia's abominable practice of civil forfeiture to boost its revenues ("What's Yours Is Theirs," Sept. 3). Much blame for this frightening state of legal affairs belongs to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
The 1996 case Bennis v. Michigan upheld, by a 5-4 vote, the civil seizure of John and Tina Bennis's car after John pleaded guilty to—and paid a fine for—having sex with a prostitute in the car. The Supreme Court ruled that, according to the tradition of civil forfeiture, Tina Bennis's innocence of her husband's criminal actions didn't protect her from being stripped of her ownership share in the car. Writing for the majority, Mr. Rehnquist further argued that because civil forfeiture was part of Anglo-American common law when the Bill of Rights was ratified, the Constitution allows such civil seizures.
But the chief justice's history was shoddy. When the Bill of Rights was ratified, civil forfeiture was used to seize the properties only of owners who were physically outside of the jurisdiction of a state or federal criminal court. People within an American court's jurisdiction—such as the Bennises in Michigan as well as the Sourovelises in Philadelphia—could be stripped of property only upon a finding of their personal guilt in a criminal proceeding.