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.