Judge Nixes Indiana’s Civil Forfeiture of Vehicles

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — Though Attorney General Jeff Sessions is increasing use of civil forfeiture to seize money and property from people not convicted of a crime, a federal judge ruled that Indiana’s law on seizure and forfeiture of vehicles is unconstitutional because it violates due process.

“We plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions said on July 17. “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.”

Civil forfeitures, however, allow the government to take money and property from people who have not been convicted of a crime, or even charged with one.

In the Indiana case, Indianapolis police arrested Leroy Washington in September 2016 and charged him with selling marijuana. They towed his car and held it for forfeiture.

In November that year, Washington demanded the return of his car and filed a federal class action against the police, the mayor and the county prosecutor. He challenged the constitutionality of the Indiana law that allows police to seize and hold a vehicle for three to six months without a hearing or judicial oversight.

Indianapolis officials argued that “the Constitution does not require any procedure prior to the actual forfeiture proceeding.”

But on Aug. 18, Chief U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson granted Washington summary judgment, finding that the Indiana law violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and 14thAmendments, and enjoined the state from enforcing it.

Washington has regained possession of his car, but Magnus-Stinson found him a proper representative of the class because he “has continued to diligently pursue this case.”

She certified the class and ruled that the case is not moot due to Washington’s reclamation of the vehicle.

“Defendants have not indicated any intention to cease enforcement of the statute, and defendants do not dispute that 169 vehicles have been seized for forfeiture between Nov. 2, 2016 and Feb. 13, 2017,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

She noted that the statute does not allow the vehicle owner to claim the property via replevin.

“It is evident to this court that a three- to six-month deprivation is a lengthy one, and could cause significant hardship to the individual whose vehicle is seized,” the judge wrote.

She added that the lack of an interim remedy, such as retrieval of the vehicle after posting bond, “particularly burdens individuals who lack the financial resources to secure another vehicle during the pendency of proceedings, or who are unable to access reliable public transportation.”

Magnus-Stinson stated that “robust procedural safeguards” are important due to the government’s “direct pecuniary interest” in the result of forfeiture proceedings.

“The property may be sold in a public sale, with the proceeds divided, pursuant to the statute, between the seizing law enforcement agency and the common school fund,” she ruled.

In granting a permanent injunction, Magnus-Stinson said, “this court will not attempt a constitutional rewrite of the statute.”

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