While looking up my most favorite in-rem case ("US vs. approximately 64k Pounds of Shark Fins"), I stumbled over a few quite strange ones:

All of these are named "Item v State" and technically, it was a representative for the items' owners that sued, but how come we name these cases "Item vs. State" and not "Representative for Item vs. State" or "Owner v State"?

2 Answers 2


The original filed case would have been "Government v. Item", with the government (plaintiff) suing the item (defendant), not the other way around. But these are appellate cases, and the title convention there is "Appellant v. Respondent", regardless of who was the original plaintiff or defendant. So in each case, the item presumably lost in some lower court and is now appealing to SCOTUS.

Taking 62 Cases of Jam as an example and chasing the citations, the original case in US District Court for the District of New Mexico was United States v. 62 Cases, 87 F. Supp. 735 (D.N.M. 1949). The government sought to condemn the jam on the grounds that it was only 25% fruit, where federal standards for jam required that it must contain at least 45% (or more depending on the type of fruit). The District Court dismissed the "libel" on the grounds that the product was clearly labeled "imitation".

The government appealed to the Tenth Circuit (183 F.2d 1014 (10th Cir. 1950)); here the case was still titled "US v. 62 Cases" since the United States was the appellant; appeals cases are always titled "Appellant v. Respondent". The circuit court reversed, ruling that since it looks and tastes like jam, it has to meet the standards for jam, its label notwithstanding, and ordered the jam to be condemned.

The jam petitioned for certiorari to the US Supreme Court, (340 U.S. 593 (1951)), and now for the first time the title of the case is "62 Cases of Jam v. US" since the jam is now the petitioner. Again, "Petitioner v. Respondent" is the norm. As the defendant party was "62 Cases of Jam" throughout the lower courts, it wouldn't make sense to change it to "Fred Smith, Owner of 62 Cases of Jam" at this point.

SCOTUS reversed, and the jam was finally exonerated, free to resume its ordinary jammy activities.

  • The jam (Which was represented by a lawyer paid by the owner of the jam) ....
    – Trish
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:51

The reason is that the item "did" a wrong, therefore the police are seizing the item. A civil forfeiture case – against the item – will be filed by the government. The item is not protected by the Constitution, and in case the owner finds out and sues, the government's case rests on whether the item has the "result of" relation to a crime, and they just have to prove that it is "more likely than not" (the owner does not have to be even allegedly culpable). As that article says,

Civil forfeiture rests on the idea (a legal fiction) that the property itself, not the owner, has violated the law. Thus, the proceeding is directed against the res, or the thing involved in some illegal activity specified by statute. Unlike criminal forfeiture, in rem forfeiture does not require a conviction or even an official criminal charge against the owner.

In the case decided by SCOTUS, the car appealed a PA Supreme court ruling Commonwealth v. One 1958 Plymouth Sedan, because the car complained about that ruling where the Commonwealth complained about the car: this explains the order of parties being different.

  • But why is it not "OWNER vs US" but "ITEM vs US?" You explain the "US v ITEM" version, but not the "ITEM vs US"
    – Trish
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:01
  • 1
    Because the government is not suing the owner, it is suing the item. The owner has various rights which the item does not have.
    – user6726
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:17
  • That still does not explain "Car vs. US" You always expolain "US VS Car"
    – Trish
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:20
  • @NateEldredge THAT is an answer!
    – Trish
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:20
  • So your question is specifically about the order of parties in the particular cases. That is a material fact that should be part of the question
    – user6726
    Jul 2, 2022 at 17:37

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