Federal Judge Rules Indiana Seizing Cars With Civil Forfeiture Is Unconstitutional
In a major win for private property rights, a federal judge ruled that Indiana can no longer seize vehicles under its controversial civil forfeiture laws, which allow police to confiscate property without filing criminal charges. Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that Indiana's laws were unconstitutional because they failed to provide a timely hearing for the property owner to contest the seizure.
The decision comes just days after Hoosier lawmakers held a summer study committee to discuss forfeiture reform, and less than a month after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new policy to expand police seizures nationwide.
The case began last September when an officer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department pulled over Leroy Washington and found a small
amount of cannabis. Police charged Washington with dealing marijuana and seized his car.
But Washington fought back. With help from Jeff Cardella, a criminal defense attorney and law professor at Indiana University, he filed a federal class-action lawsuit last November on behalf of other owners whose cars were held by law enforcement in Indianapolis. Between November 2016 and February 2017, those agencies seized at least 169 vehicles, or 11 cars per week on average. After he filed his lawsuit, Washington was able to recover his car, though he was still able to represent the class of owners.
The lawsuit claimed that Indiana’s forfeiture laws violated the car owners’ right to due process, as guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. In Indiana, once property is seized, law enforcement can take up to 180 days to file a forfeiture complaint, i.e. a lawsuit to permanently confiscate the seized property. If the owner demands their car back, the deadline drops to 90 days from the date of the demand.
Even worse, the property owner cannot challenge the seizure during that months-long hold period. That is because, under state law, seized property is “not subject to replevin,” a process that would allow the owners to regain wrongfully taken property while awaiting trial. In other words, Hoosiers would have to wait up to six months before they could even challenge a seizure in court. That even includes innocent, third-party owners (typically parents and spouses) who did not know or consent to their property being used in any criminal activity.
As Judge Magnus-Stinson noted, losing one’s car for months on end “could cause significant hardship:”
During those months, if the owner has secured financing to purchase the vehicle, he is still required to make payments on that loan, lest he risk foreclosure and repossession. He is also required, of course, to make other arrangements for his transportation needs, which may include fundamental life activities such as transit to a job or school, visits to health care professionals, and caretaking for children or other family members.
In order to prevent “erroneous deprivation” and to safeguard due process, property owners must be “provided with some sort of mechanism through which to challenge whether continued deprivation is justifiable.” As the U.S. Supreme Court noted almost 25 years ago, “our precedents establish the general rule that individuals must receive notice and an opportunity to be heard before the Government deprives them of property.”
But Indiana’s forfeiture laws ban replevin and do not allow any other “opportunity for interim relief," which raises grave due process concerns. According to Judge Magnus-Stinson, “there is no judicial determination of probable cause for the seizure,” which means that “the only process that an individual receives prior to a forfeiture hearing is a law enforcement officer’s determination that probable cause exists for an arrest.” That is, by definition, a one-sided affair.
“Allowing for the seizure and retention of vehicles,” she wrote, “without providing an opportunity for an individual to challenge the pre-forfeiture deprivation [is] unconstitutional.”
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