We’re not big fans of civil forfeiture in these parts, for all the reasons that others have pointed out: it disproportionately affects minorities and the poor, and sometimes even people who haven’t committed crimes. Indiana’s laws are a little harsher than others. But thanks to a federal judge, residents there recently got a break.
Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief judge of the Southern District of Indiana, ordered late last month that state and local law enforcement stop seizing vehicles in drug cases and related crimes, saying that because Indiana’s current laws don’t allow for interim relief—posting a bond to get your car back, perhaps, or even just requiring a hearing to determine if the authorities have the right to keep holding your seized property at all—the laws are unconstitutional.
The case began in September 2016, when Leroy Washington was arrested on drug charges after he was stopped in a silver Chevy Malibu, and officers found about 1.6 ounces of marijuana, in addition to $468 in cash. His car, the money, and the drugs were seized, and Jeff Cardella, a lawyer and law professor at Indiana University, filed a class-action suit on Washington’s behalf less than two months later. (Washington’s criminal case is still pending.)
That case unfolded rather quickly by federal court standards, before Magnus-Stinson eventually concluded in her opinion on August 18, “that the statutory provisions allowing for the seizure and retention of vehicles without providing an opportunity for an individual to challenge the pre-forfeiture deprivation are unconstitutional.”
After the decision was released in late August, Cardella told IndyStar he was pleased.
“This is an injustice I have wanted to change for several years,” Cardella said.
The Office of the Indiana Attorney General, which is representing the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in the case, emailed Jalopnik a statement from Attorney General Curtis Hill. The office did not say if it planned an appeal. Here’s Hill’s statement in full:
Civil forfeiture has been a longstanding process in the State of Indiana and is a valuable tool in the battle against organized criminal behavior. We are currently reviewing the decision of the court along with the injunction in determining our further steps in the interest of protecting and defending the use of civil forfeiture in Indiana. In addition, my office has been working with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, various law enforcement groups and the General Assembly in addressing appropriate reforms to our civil forfeiture statute in order to ensure appropriate due process and other concerns.
Appeal or not, the Indiana state legislature has been studying whether the state’s forfeiture laws need changing, and any long-term change is likely to come from there, not the courts. A bill requiring the government to obtain a criminal conviction before seizing someone’s property passed the state senate in March, but has since stalled.