Citing civil forfeiture ruling, trial court returns seized property

Nearly four months after a district court judge struck down portions of Indiana’s civil forfeiture statute as unconstitutional, the effects of that decision are now being felt in Indiana’s trial courts, where a judge has ordered the return of seized property pursuant to the district court’s ruling.

In August, Southern District Court Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson determined Indiana Code section 34-24-1-1(a)(1), when read in conjunction with statutory provisions of the same chapter, is unconstitutional because it allows law enforcement to hold a seized vehicle without a “post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing.” Without such a hearing, a defendant’s Fifth and 14th Amendment due process protections are violated, Magnus-Stinson wrote in Washington v. Marion County Prosecutor, No. 1:2016cv02980 (S.D. Ind. 2017).

The “post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing” the chief judge wrote about came into question recently in a Marion County civil forfeiture case, State of Indiana, et al. v. Juan Lizarraga, et al., 49D10-1408-MI-026539. In that case, state law enforcement officers seized a 1985 Chevrolet El Camino and a 2008 Dodge Ram after arresting the defendant in May 2014.

Less than a month after Magnus-Stinson’s civil forfeiture ruling, the state filed a petition in the Marion County case for a probable cause hearing pursuant to the decision in Washington. The state’s petition held that, “If probable cause is not found, then the (vehicles) will be released to the owner.”

Multiple hearings were held at which the state told Judge David Dreyer it had neither a probable cause affidavit nor a witness to support the continued holding of the property. Thus, Dreyer ordered the state on Dec. 7 to release the vehicles to their owner.

Dreyer’s order comes as state lawmakers are preparing to discuss civil forfeiture reform during the upcoming legislative session. In October, the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary endorsed a draft civil forfeiture reform bill that would require prosecutors to file a probable cause affidavit within seven days of seizing someone’s property, among other recommended reforms.

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