Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two notable decisions on the same day.
One was a civil white-collar case, the other a criminal drug-trafficking case, and in both cases, the Court reversed the lower-court ruling on appeal.
In the civil case, the Court imposed a five-year statute of limitations on SEC cases that seek to disgorge profits. That’s the same period that applies in cases to enforce a fine, penalty, or forfeiture. Although disgorgement of profits is traditionally a form of restitution that’s measured by a defendant’s wrongful gain, the Court ruled that it’s a penalty in SEC cases for a couple reasons. First, the agency uses it to deter and punish defendants as much as to compensate victims. Sometimes, the money goes to Uncle Sam, and sometimes, the only victim is the public at large. Second, the agency often disgorges more than defendants have gained, leaving them worse off than before they broke the law. That may be the point, but that makes it a penalty.
In a footnote, the Court even seemed to call into question whether courts could order disgorgement at all. That’s something they’ve been doing since the 1970s, so it’s a big deal. For more in-depth analysis of this decision, see here.
In the criminal case, the Court reined in the government’s forfeiture power. Forfeiture allows the government to seize money or property that’s derived from a crime. But the law limits this to what someone actually and personally receives or obtains. That means you can’t be responsible for amounts obtained by someone else. So the hypothetical college student who gets $500 per month to drop off a few packages isn’t on the hook for the whole multimillion-dollar drug enterprise.
Here, two brothers worked in a hardware store together. One of them owned the store, and the other was a salaried employee. The two were charged with selling large amounts of a product they knew or had reason to know was being used to make meth. In three years, the store grossed about $400,000 from selling the stuff and netted $270,000.
The government wanted the $270,000 in profits. The owner agreed to forfeit $200,000 of it when he pleaded guilty, but the employee went to trial. He was acquitted of three counts, convicted of eleven, and sentenced to sixty months in prison. Then the government went after him for the remaining $70,000.
Although the government agreed that the employee had no ownership interest in the store and didn’t personally benefit from the illicit sales, it argued that, in a conspiracy, everyone is responsible for the full proceeds of the conspiracy. And it won that argument on appeal.
But the Supreme Court rejected that and reversed.