Lawsuit challenging forfeiture survives attempt to moot

Marion County has failed in its attempt to derail a lawsuit over the state’s civil forfeiture statute by giving the property back to the named plaintiff.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Tuesday denied the state’s motion to dismiss in Leroy Washington v. Marion County Prosecutor, Mayor of the Consolidated City of Indianapolis/Marion County, and Chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, 1:16-cv-02980.

Washington filed the class action in November 2016 after police seized his vehicle and held it for forfeiture. Law enforcement had stopped Washington while he was driving his vehicle then arrested him and charged him with several felonies. He criminal case is pending in Marion County Superior Court.

In his complaint, Washington argues the state’s civil forfeiture law, Indiana Code 34-24-1-2(a )(1), violates the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The statute, he contends, allows the government to take and keep property for several months without giving the owner the right to challenge the seizure.

Washington also filed a motion for class certification along with his complaint.

On the day of deadline for the prosecutor’s office had to respond to discovery requests, it returned the vehicle to Washington and filed a request for dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The office argued no further relief could be granted to the plaintiff and therefore the matter was moot.

Washington countered by citing both the inherently transitory and capable of repetition doctrines.

Since the defendants can release the property when they want, the court might not have enough time to rule on a motion for class certification before the plaintiff’s interest expires, he argued. Yet the state has not done anything to show the wrong will not be repeated. Forfeitures will continue and either the current plaintiff or other individuals could have their property seized.

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson agreed. She echoed the plaintiff in finding the defendants can moot any forfeiture case by releasing the property before a court is able to issue a ruling. Also, the defendants have not indicated they will change their practices and are likely to continue enforcing the forfeiture statute.

In the order, Magnus-Stinson noted the defendants’ conduct in the matter.

 “Moreover, the Court has not yet ruled on Mr. Washington’s class certification motion, but through no fault or delay on the part of Mr. Washington,” she wrote. “Indeed, it was the Defendants who filed motions for extension of time to respond to the motion to certify a class and to Mr. Washington’s initial discovery requests.”


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