Federal Judge Says Indiana's Vehicle Forfeiture Laws Are Unconstitutional

from the state-cops-earn-a-federal-permaban dept

More good news on the forfeiture front: Nick Sibilla of forfeiture watchdogs Institute for Justice reports a federal judge has declared one of Indiana’s civil asset forfeiture laws 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 case springs from an arrest and seizure made last September when the plaintiff was pulled over by Indianapolis law enforcement. Finding a small amount of marijuana on the driver, the Indy PD felt justified in claiming his entire vehicle as its own. Not content to be screwed out of a car for his personal use stash, Leroy Washington enlisted the help of defense lawyer Jeff Cardella. They filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state’s forfeiture law on behalf of the hundreds of drivers whose cars have ended up in the possession of Indiana law enforcement — all without being convicted of any criminal activity.

Seizing cars is something Indiana law enforcement does frequently. According to the stats quoted by the judge, the state seizes around 11 cars a week. Once the vehicles are in the law enforcement’s possession, drivers are forbidden from seeking to regain their property until the state says it’s OK to do so. And it’s generally in no hurry to do so. It can hold the vehicle for six months before starting forfeiture proceedings, forcing car owners to find other transportation while their vehicles sit in impound lots.

As the judge notes in the decision [PDF], this law — which locks car owners out of the loop for months — poses significant problems for people who haven’t been convicted of criminal activity.

Following a seizure, the government may hold a vehicle without taking any action for 180 days, or for 90 days after receiving written notice from the owner demanding the vehicle’s return. Ind. Code § 34-24-1-3. During this timeframe, the owner of the property has no ability to challenge the seizure, because replevin is prohibited by the statute. Ind. Code § 34- 24-1-2(c) (“Property that is seized under subsection (a) … is not subject to replevin but is considered to be in the custody of the law enforcement agency making the seizure.”).

Therefore, three to six months may elapse, during which time the owner is deprived of the use of his vehicle, and the government is not required to take any action whatsoever regarding the seized property. It is particularly problematic that the statute specifically bars replevin. Absent another statutorily created mechanism to challenge the deprivation, replevin would provide a vehicle owner’s only recourse. But that avenue has been specifically foreclosed by the statute. 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. 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.

[…]

Second, unlike some states’ statutes, Indiana’s forfeiture provisions do not allow for interim relief during the pendency of proceedings. Such interim relief could include returning the seized vehicle subject to the posting of a surety bond or other adequate security. […] The absence of an opportunity for interim relief 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.

As the court concludes, this process — enabled by state law — makes a mockery of Constitutional rights.

[I]ndiana Code Section 34-24-1-1(a)(1), as read in conjunction with the statutory provisions of the same chapter, violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court therefore permanently enjoins Defendants from enforcing that statutory provision.

This is exactly the conclusion Indiana’s law enforcement didn’t want the court to reach. In hopes of heading off the lawsuit (and this precedent), the state argued the return of Washington’s vehicle rendered the case moot. The court doesn’t care for this dodge, and points out it’s exactly the sort of move anticipated both by Washington’s earlier briefs and the court itself:

The Court concludes (as it did in its order denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss) that Washington has established that the inherently transitory doctrine applies here. First, it is uncertain that a claim will remain live for any individual who could be named as a plaintiff long enough for a court to certify the class. The statute itself limits the pre-forfeiture period to 180 days. As the procedural history of this case illustrates, despite a district court’s best efforts to provide prompt resolution to all pending matters, the realities of a district court’s docket and case load (along with the possibility that the parties may need additional time to conduct discovery related to class certification) may result in motions to certify being unresolved for longer than 180 days. In this case, Washington’s Motion to Certify a Class was filed on November 2, 2016—more than 180 days before the issuance of an order resolving it. [Filing No. 3.] And, as the State retains discretion to return the seized property to its owner at any time, it could attempt to moot any named plaintiff’s claim by simply returning the property after the plaintiff files a motion to certify.

It further points out mooting Washington wouldn’t moot the class action, which includes everyone similarly situated — both now and in the future.

Second, there will be a constant class of persons suffering the deprivation complained of in the Complaint. Defendants have not indicated any intention to cease enforcement of the statute, and Defendants do not dispute that at least 169 vehicles have been seized for forfeiture between November 2, 2016 and February 13, 2017.

The end result is a federal injunction preventing Indiana law enforcement from seizing vehicles without better recovery routes available for car owners. Since the adjoining clause walking all over the Constitution hasn’t been rewritten yet, this pretty much means the end of vehicle seizures until that’s addressed by the legislature. Considering state lawmakers were already considering forfeiture reforms, this might mark the permanent end of taking cars away from people without obtaining corresponding convictions.

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Comments on “Federal Judge Says Indiana's Vehicle Forfeiture Laws Are Unconstitutional”

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23 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Seize the state vehicles

Since the state seems to have no problem with property being seized with no recourse or penalty for at least 6 months, seize all of the state owned vehicles to be used to recompense the people affected by these unconstitutional action.

Lets see how well the police and other state workers are able to do their job when the shoe is on the other foot.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Those things not found

So, I understand that the presumption of innocence is not a part of the Constitution, rather a point of common law, long recognized. But the court failed to recognize the part of the Fifth Amendment…

U.S. Constitution – Amendment 5

Amendment 5 – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

…about the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. Whatever the justification for taking the property, it was in fact put into public use, whether for riding around or for sale and the money to be part of ‘public income’, it is public use. Where was the compensation?

That there is no Constitutional prevention for ‘charging property’ without the owner (or holder) of the property being convicted of a crime is one of those things that needs fixing in our jurisprudence process.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Those things not found

The court claims that the due process clause is satisfied by the fact that you can sue the government to get your property back, at your own expense, and all burden of proof being on you, the plaintiff.

Indiana’s law varied from the norm by prohibiting you from suing the government to get your property back. So even by the very fast and loose interpretation of due process in other states, Indiana’s law was unconstitutional.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Someone with a very similar handle as yourself keeps saying this. Now MyNameHere may or may not like something, but, I gotta ask, why do you or your other namesakes think that it is important to make a statement about whether MyNameHere would or would not like something? Do you think it might lend something insightful to the conversation?

A suggestion, when MyNameHere makes a post, say something to him that might add to the conversation. If you don’t like what MyNameHere has to say, point out where he/she is mistaken and why that mistake might be important.

In the mean time, just saying that MyNameHere isn’t going to like something…adds nothing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You’re making the assumption that all commentary on a website needs to be insightful.

Personally, I don’t think what the original poster said is necessarily insightful, but considering the history of MyNameHere/Whatever/Just Sayin’/horse with no name, he has built up a consistent reputation of complaining whenever police procedures are regulated because they stepped their bounds, invaded privacy without reason, committed acts of spectacular violence, etc. He’s a police apologist no matter how ridiculous the cops are being.

So a statement about whether MyNameHere would like something or not is commentary that for once, someone is keeping the police in line instead of permitting them to seize everything on sight or shoot unarmed civilians. If he wants to actually disprove this reputation he built for himself he can always post in response and challenge it. Until then, I say let him lie in the shitty bed he made.

Cyber Killer says:

Great law

I would gladly see such law in Europe. We have way too many cars on the streets, if the cops would take them away from people, it would be awesome for the environment and the bicycle riders around. Especially that the speeders don’t care about fines or taking away the drivers license, but taking away their tools of the crime, would in effect increase public safety.

JustMe (profile) says:

Re: Great law

Your reasoning is manifestly flawed. The problem here is that the police don’t have to PROVE the vehicles were used for criminal activity and there is NO WAY for owners to contest the seizures. As another comment points out what is to stop them at just taking cars? There are too many pets, they crowd the park and the owners don’t pick up after them so the state must confiscate pets. There are too many smartphones, they clog the cellular network and can spread malware so the state must confiscate smartphones.

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