7th Circuit remands Indiana civil forfeiture case

In another dispute in an Indiana civil forfeiture case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has denied issuing an opinion on a district court ruling that found parts of the state statute unconstitutional, finding the lower court was not given a chance to address the state’s effort to fix the problem.

The case began in 2016 when Leroy Washington was pulled over and arrested on several felony charges, which also led the towing and forfeiture of his vehicle under Indiana Code 34- 24-1-1(a)(1) and 2(a)(1). Washington asserted his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were violated on behalf of himself and others like him in a federal class action complaint.

An August 2016 ruling by Southern District Court Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson found Washington’s assertion to be correct, and that Indiana Code section 34-24-1-1(a)(1), when read in conjunction with statutory provisions of the same chapter, was unconstitutional. Specifically, Magnus-Stinson found it was unconstitutional for law enforcement to hold a seized vehicle without a “post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing.” 

The Marion County Prosecutor’s office returned Washington’s vehicle and moved to dismiss the case as moot, but the district court certified a class and granted Washington summary judgment in August 2017. While the prosecutor’s subsequent appeal was pending, Indiana amended its forfeiture statutes, partly in an attempt to address Magnus-Stinson’s constitutionality concerns.

Those changes, among other things, require prosecuting attorneys to file a probable cause affidavit within seven days of the seizure. If no probable cause can be found, then the property must be returned to its owner.

The prosecutor’s office argued to the 7th Circuit Court that the old version of the statute did not violate Washington’s due process, and that the new version changed and increased the available process, thus ameliorating any potential due process deficiencies identified by the district court.

Washington continued to hold that the statute before and after its amendments violated due process. He contended that the amendments do not cure the due process deficiency, provide any meaningful impact or moot his claim.

But a 7th Circuit panel concluded it would not give an opinion on the case, Leroy Washington v. Marion County Prosecutor, 17-2933. The unanimous panel found that the district court never had a chance to address the amended statute.

“Given that the record and arguments regarding the amendments are under-developed, we remand this case to the district court for further proceedings,” Circuit Court Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the panel.

The 7th Circuit Court thus directed the district court to address both parties’ contentions regarding the amended statute and answer the question of whether it properly solved Magnus-Stinson’s constitutionality concerns. The panel further added that if appropriate, the district court should also revisit the class to determine whether it should be decertified or redefined accordingly.

 “At present, we express no opinion regarding the constitutionality of the old or new versions of the statute, regarding mootness, or regarding the class. Also, our argument summaries do not limit the arguments the parties may raise on remand,” Manion continued. “We leave latitude to the district court to conduct further proceedings it deems necessary and proper given the amendments and the parties’ positions. Any review we are subsequently called upon to make will benefit from these proceedings and the reasoning of the district court.”

The ruling comes after the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously overruled the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this month, concluding the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines to the states in, Tyson Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091.

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