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.”
“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.”