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Historically, the government may impose forfeitures of property tainted by crime. See The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1, 13 (1827) (forfeiture of ship); Dobbins's Distillery v. United States, 96 U. S. 395,400-401 (1878) (forfeiture of distillery)).


The theory behind such forfeitures was the fiction that the action was directed against 'guilty property,' rather than against the offender himself. The 'guilty property' theory behind in rem forfeiture can be traced to the Bible, which describes property being sacrificed to God as a means of atoning for an offense. See Exodus 21:28. In medieval Europe and at common law, this concept evolved into the law of deodand, in which offending property was condemned and confiscated by the church or the Crown in remediation for the harm it had caused. See 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown 420-424 (1st Am. ed. 1847); 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 290-292 (1765); O. Holmes, The Common Law 10-13, 23-27 (M. Howe ed. 1963). See, e. g., Various Items of Personal Property v. United States, 282 U. S. 577, 581 (1931) ('[I]t is the property which is proceeded against, and, by resort to a legal fiction, held guilty ...

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