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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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