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Justices reverse forfeiture of truck

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The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the lower appellate court that a man’s truck shouldn’t have been lost in a civil forfeiture action because the state didn’t prove any substantial connection between the truck and the commission of a crime.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard kicked off the unanimous opinion describing civil forfeiture as “a devise, a legal fiction, authorizing legal action against inanimate objects for participating in alleged criminal activity, regardless of whether the property owner is proven guilty of the crime – or even charged with a crime.” He delved into the roots of the action, in rem forfeiture, that go back to maritime law, and he also explained how civil forfeitures play a role in funding the state’s common school fund.

Out of those funds, the court may allow for law enforcement and the prosecutor to recoup expenses incurred related to the seizure, as well as expenses related to the criminal prosecution. Whether this process is in agreement with what the Indiana Constitution says regarding all forfeitures going into the common school fund is “an unresolved question,” the chief justice noted.

Currently, the Indiana General Assembly is debating Senate Bill 215, which would specify how much of forfeiture funds may go to sources outside of the school fund. A lawsuit was filed in August 2010 in Marion County against 78 prosecutors alleging they violated the law by not turning over seized assets from criminals to the common school fund. It was dismissed earlier this month.

In Martin Serrano v. State of Indiana and the City of Fort Wayne, No. 02S03-1104-CV-241, the justices focused on the first ground for forfeiture under Indiana Code 34-24-1-2 – “if the seizure is incident to lawful arrest, search, or administrative inspection” when examining Martin Serrano’s case. Serrano lost his truck in a forfeiture action based on the presence of cocaine residue found in the carpet of his truck and on a box of $500 in quarters. Police received an anonymous tip that the grocery store where he worked was receiving drug shipments from Chicago. Police pulled over Serrano’s truck after it left the grocery store because he was speeding and they thought he had an outstanding warrant.

While in custody, a canine officer alerted officers to the presence of narcotics and the truck was towed. Serrano was later released because the warrant was for a different Martin Serrano. But police got a search warrant for the truck the next day and found the drug residue in the car. Serrano admitted to using drugs and said he was the only person who drove the truck. Police also conducted trash pulls at Serrano’s home recovering bank receipts trying to prove he was making more money than he claimed and was involved in drug trade.

The trial court granted the state’s complaint for forfeiture of the truck. But this was an error, the justices concluded, because the state failed to prove that the truck was used or intended for use by Serrano to transport cocaine. Chief Justice Shepard cited Katner v. State, 655 N.E.2d 345 (Ind. 1995), in which the high court held that to sustain a forfeiture, the state must demonstrate that the property sought was used in one of the enumerated offenses under the statute.

“… the State’s evidence does not compel a conclusion that the presence of cocaine was anything more than ‘incidental or fortuitous,’” wrote the chief justice in reference to Katner. “The State presented no evidence or link to any drug transactions or trade other than the initial information from an anonymous informant that the grocery store was receiving large shipments of drugs. Serrano admitted he was a cocaine user, and without expounding, it seems apparent that there are numerous ways that cocaine residue may have made its way into the truck that do not involve the use of his vehicle in furthering the possession of cocaine.”

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  1. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

  4. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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