Divided court returns forfeited Buick to owner

March 24, 2015

A woman working at a Wal-Mart return center who helped herself to four iPhones on the way out the door wrongly had her car seized as a result of the conviction, a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. Justices reversed lower court civil forfeiture orders.

Detona Sargent was stopped before she got out the door, a search revealed the iPhones she’d stuffed under her shirt, and she was arrested. A friend was driving her 1996 Buick Century and waiting for her in the parking lot, and after Sargent was arrested, police located the car and impounded it.

Sargent ultimately pleaded guilty to Class D felony theft, and the state moved for summary judgment under Indiana’s asset forfeiture statute. I.C. 34-24-1-1(a) permits seizure of vehicles “if they are used or are intended for use by the person or persons in possession of them to transport or in any manner to facilitate the transportation of” stolen property worth $100 or more.

A Marion Superior trial court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment and allowed seizure of the vehicle, a decision unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Robert Rucker wrote for the majority that included Justice Brent Dickson and Chief Justice Loretta Rush in reversing the forfeiture.

“Sargent had neither actual nor constructive possession of her Buick vehicle at the time it was ‘used or intended for use’ to ‘facilitate the transportation’ of stolen property,” Rucker wrote. “At all relevant times Sargent was detained in the store and thus had no physical control over the vehicle. Indeed Sargent had not been in actual possession of her car since earlier in the day when she allowed a co-worker to use it on condition the worker would return so that Sargent could drive home at the end of her shift.”

Justices Steven David and Mark Massa wrote separate dissents.

“Though at the time of the thefts Sargent was not physically occupying her vehicle, she exerted ‘dominion and control’ over the Buick, as evidenced by her instruction to her co-worker to return the vehicle by the end of her shift so she could drive home. Thus, she constructively possessed the Buick,” wrote David, who would affirm the trial court.

Massa joined David’s dissent but wrote separately to comment on the discretion the state enjoys in determining when to seek asset forfeiture. He noted increasing recent criticism of asset forfeiture regimes nationally and in Indiana and observed this case seemed to fit the adage that hard cases make bad law.

“There is, in my judgment, sufficient evidence that Sargent constructively possessed her car and that it was ‘intended for use … to transport’ the phones, and thus technically eligible for forfeiture,” Massa wrote.

“But really? Firing Sargent and having her righteously prosecuted for felony theft was not enough? The State had to take her car, too?

“… These (asset forfeiture) tools are not without their critics, and their misuse invites further scrutiny. Moreover, when authorities overreach, the judiciary is tempted to impose remedies that do justice in a particular case but may do harm to the law over time,” Massa wrote.

The case is Detona Sargent v. State of Ind., and the Consolidated City of Indianapolis/Marion Co., and the Indianapolis Metro Police Dept., 49S02-1312-MI-790.



Recent Articles by Dave Stafford