Justices reverse forfeiture of truck

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.”


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  2. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.

  3. (A)ll (C)riminals (L)ove (U)s is up to their old, "If it's honorable and pro-American, we're against it," nonsense. I'm not a big Pence fan but at least he's showing his patriotism which is something the left won't do.

  4. While if true this auto dealer should be held liable, where was the BMV in all of this? How is it that the dealer was able to get "clean" titles to these vehicles in order to sell them to unsuspecting consumers?

  5. He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless [ ] Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. GOD BLESS THE GOVERNORS RESISTING! Count on the gutless judiciary to tie our children down and facilitate the swords being drawn across their throats. Wake Up America ...