The Supreme Court is reviewing a case on civil asset forfeiture, a practice many consider to be legalized theft, that involves the legality of the seizure of cars or other property by the police.
Oral arguments were presented on Monday concerning the practice and whether returning seized property should be streamlined according to the New York Times.
“On the one hand, several justices said, the practice of confiscating property said to have been used to commit crimes, known as civil asset forfeiture, is easily abused,” the news outlet noted.
“Clearly there are some jurisdictions that are using civil forfeiture as funding mechanisms,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch stated, remarking that some authorities had made it difficult for innocent people to reclaim items seized from them.
(Audio Credit: Forbes Breaking News)
“We know there are abuses of the forfeiture system,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued. “We know it because it’s been documented throughout the country repeatedly.”
“Is this the case that presents the due process problem that we should be worried about?” Justice Gorsuch asked concerning the two cases from Alabama, wondering whether the available procedures applied to them were adequate.
Justice Sotomayor raised the concern that the high court’s ruling on the issue might be too broad.
“Bad facts make bad law, and I fear we may be headed that way,” she stated. “Do we leave open the possibility that there are states, jurisdictions, that are abusing this process?”
One of the two cases came about after Halima Culley bought a 2015 Nissan Altima for her son when he was going to college. He wound up being pulled over by the police in 2019 and arrested after they found marijuana in the car. At that time, they also seized his car.
SCOTUS is back, baby! Today the ct heard Culley v Marshall, which asks what procedural protections apply when gov’t steals—I mean, ahem, seizes—your stuff. Under civil asset forfeiture, gov’t can take your cash, tvs, cars, etc. w/o arresting, let alone convicting you of a crime pic.twitter.com/DTIjGhivs3
— A lady (@Anastasia_esq) October 31, 2023
The second case involves Lena Sutton who lent her 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to a friend in 2019. The friend was stopped for speeding and arrested when they found meth in the car. That vehicle was seized as well.
The state of Alabama allows “innocent” owners to reclaim their property and both women persuaded judges to return their vehicles to them. It took over a year for each of their cars to be returned.
“Ms. Culley and Ms. Sutton filed class actions in federal court saying that they should have been afforded prompt interim hearings to argue for the return of the vehicles while their cases moved forward. Lower courts ruled against them,” the New York Times reported.
Their attorney, Shay Dvoretzky, asserted that requiring interim hearings would be “workable and effective.”
“These cases are most important for one group of people: innocent owners,” Sotomayor commented. “Because they are people who claim they didn’t know about the criminal activity. Many of these cases involve parents with teenage or close-to-teenage children involved in drug activity. The ones that don’t may involve spouses or friends.”
I will admit, this is not the biggest thing in constitutional law today. That’s the argument in Culley v. Marshall, a civil forfeiture case about the right to a prompt-post-seizure hearing. I’ll have to check that out later.https://t.co/6qRTvJrn0t
— Anthony Sanders (@IJSanders) October 30, 2023
Gorsuch has raised issues concerning civil forfeiture abuses before.
He said, “There are arguments to be made that there are attempts to create processes that are deeply unfair and obviously so in order to retain the property for the coffers of the state.”
Gorsuch also noted that there are “allegations before us” that “some states because law enforcement uses these forfeitures to fund themselves,” have been known to demand that an owner surrender some of his property in exchange for getting the rest back or “engage in other concessions outside of regular process.”
The justice added, “We know a lot more now… about how civil forfeiture is being used in some states, about the kinds of abuses that it’s subject to, about the kind of incentives operating on law enforcement officers that tend toward those abuses.”
Gorsuch returns to Thomas’s idea that the facts aren’t that bad here. Sotomayor fears bad facts may make bad law. If the Court doesn’t jump in here, they’ll give carte balance to states to provide as little and as poor process as they want. pic.twitter.com/cjPfYl0hdk
— A lady (@Anastasia_esq) October 31, 2023
If “we look around the world and we think there are real problems here and those problems would be solved if you got a really quick probable cause determination,” Gorsuch asked Edmund G. LaCour Jr., Alabama’s solicitor general, “why shouldn’t we do that?”
LaCour claimed that “ample process was provided” to the two women. He also said that the government had “a strong interest as well in making sure that crime doesn’t pay.”
Gorsuch wondered at the end of the argument, “How do we write a narrow opinion that does no harm here?”
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