Forfeiture of Gambling Bets and Stakes – Excessive Fines Clause

Brighton Ventures 2 LLC v. State of Alabama; St. John Life Center v. State of Alabama; Brighton Ventures 2 LLC v. State of Alabama; Brighton Ventures 2 LLC v. State of Alabama; St. John Life Center v. State of Alabama; Brighton Ventures 2 LLC v. State of Alabama, [Ms. SC-2022-0511; SC-2022-0512; SC-2022-0514; SC-2022-0745; SC-2022-0746; SC-2022-0747, Jan. 13, 2023] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2023). The Court (Shaw, J.; Bolin, Wise, Bryan, Sellers, Mendheim, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Mitchell, J., concurs in part and concurs in the result, which Parker, C.J., joins) affirms the Jefferson Circuit Court’s judgment forfeiting to the State $446,897.19 determined to have been used as bets or stakes as part of an illegal gambling operation.

In early 2019, an application for a charity-bingo business license was submitted to the City of Brighton (“the City”) on behalf of Super Highway Bingo (“the casino”). Ms. *4. On the application, the St. John Life Center was listed as the named charity. Ms. *5. Brighton Ventures was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the casino. Ibid.

The Court first affirms the circuit court’s conclusion that the “money seized from the bank accounts at issue in these cases was first received as ‘bets’ from the players or used as ‘stakes’ in furtherance of the casino’s illegal gambling activities ....” Ms. *19. The Court rejects claimants’ argument that the forfeiture of the funds constitutes an excessive fine in violation of the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and explains:

“Forfeitures ... are thus ‘fines’ [for purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause] if they constitute punishment for an offense.” [United States v.] Bajakajian, 524 U.S. [321,] 328 [(1998)]. If, however, a forfeiture is nonpunitive in nature, meaning that it has the “hallmarks of traditional civil in rem forfeitures,” including proceeding “against the currency itself” rather than “obtain[ing] a criminal conviction of [the defendant] personally,” it may be deemed to “occupy a place outside the domain of the Excessive Fines Clause” and, thus, not subject to the proportionality analysis in Bajakajian. Id. at 331-32.

Ms. *21.

The Court holds “the seized funds in the underlying civil in rem forfeiture actions in the circuit court constituted proceeds of illegal gambling activity … and the forfeiture of those proceeds cannot be considered punishment because it ‘simply parts the owner from the fruits of the criminal activity.’” Ms. **25-26, quoting Pettway v. Marshall, No. 5:19-CV-1073-KOB, July 16, 2020 (N.D. Ala. 2020) (not reported in Federal Supplement).

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