District court strikes part of state’s civil forfeiture law

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Amid discussions on legislative reform to Indiana’s civil forfeiture framework, a federal judge has ruled part of that framework unconstitutional, determining the process by which the state can seize someone’s property before an official forfeiture action violates due process protections.

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana handed down that decision Friday in the case of Leroy Washington v. Marion County Prosecutor, et al., 1:16-cv-02980, just two days after the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary met at the Indiana statehouse to discuss civil forfeiture reform. The court’s decision ruled that the practice of withholding a person’s seized vehicle without a “post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing” violates Fifth and 14th Amendment due process protections.

Specifically, Magnus-Stinson said Indiana Code section 34-24-1-1(a)(1), read in conjunction with statutory provisions of the same chapter, is unconstitutional. That statutory scheme allows law enforcement to seize 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 facilitate the transportation” of various controlled substances. Leroy Washington fell subject to that statute when his vehicle was seized after he was arrested for dealing in marijuana.

Though his car was returned to him, Washington sued on behalf of himself and a putative class, which was certified in the Friday order, claiming the lack of a “post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing” denied the plaintiffs’ due process rights. But the defendants, which included Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Brian Roach, argued Washington’s claim was rendered moot when his car was returned to him.

The chief judge disagreed, determining the “inherently transitory” exception to the mootness doctrine applied to Washington’s case. Pursuant to that doctrine, Magnus-Stinson found that “it is uncertain that a claim will remain live for any individual who could be named as a plaintiff long enough for a court to certify the class,” as the statute itself limits the pre-forfeiture period to 180 days, or 90 days if a person makes a demand for their property. Further, “there will be a constant class of persons suffering the deprivation complained of in the Complaint,” she said, the second requirement that must be met for the inherently transitory exception.

With the mootness argument defeated, Magnus-Stinson then turned to the balancing test laid out in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 (1976), to determine if the challenged statute is unconstitutional. Under the Mathews analysis, the court was required “’to consider the private interest affected by the official action; the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used, as well as the probative value of additional safeguards; and the Government’s interest, including the administrative burden that additional procedural requirements would impose.’”

Using that framework, the district court determined the private interests of deprivation of property are strong, especially considering the fact that replevin is prohibited by state statute during the three to six-month period before a civil forfeiture action must begin. The risk of erroneous deprivation is likewise high, the court said, while additional procedural safeguards would be valuable.

To that end, Magnus-Stinson determined that while a post-seizure hearing would impose an additional administrative burden, “due process always imposes some burden … And the government already has experience with conduct post-arrest probable cause hearings.” Thus, “(t)he balance of Mathews factors demonstrates that due process requires that individuals be provided with some sort of mechanism through which to challenge whether continued deprivation is justifiable,” the chief judge said while specifically noting the drafting of civil forfeiture laws is left to the General Assembly.

In a footnote to the Monday opinion, Magnus-Stinson said she had “identified a variety of methods Defendants could implement in order to satisfy the demands of due process, including, at a minimum, providing individuals with a timely post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing.” Such civil forfeiture reform is among the topic of discussion for the interim study committee members as they meet over the next two months.

Based on the Mathews analysis, the district court entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from enforcing I.C. 34-34-1-1(a)(1), as read in conjunction with statutory provisions of the same chapter. The court also granted summary judgment to Washington and denied the government’s cross-motion for summary judgment.

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