INDIANAPOLIS (CN) - Civil-forfeiture practices have diverted millions of dollars worth of seized funds away from Indiana public schools, disgruntled Hoosiers claim in court.
Filed in Marion County on Feb. 10, the 26-page complaint accuses Indianapolis and the Marion County Prosecutor's Office of interpreting fee-recovering provisions in the state's forfeiture law in a way that lets them keep all proceeds from seized property.
But lead plaintiff Jeana Horner says the Indiana Constitution requires all forfeiture proceeds to benefit public schools, into an account known as the common school fund.
The common school fund is used primarily for financing loans for educational-technology programs, school construction and charter-school operations.
Though a provision in the law does allow law enforcement and prosecutors to recover costs and expenses associated with the actual seizing of the property, Horner says the county does not keep expense records on a case-by-case basis.
As a result, the common school fund has not seen a dime from Marion County forfeitures in the last five years, according to the complaint.
This practice of "policing for profit" has diverted millions of dollars away from schools, and turned forfeitures into a revenue stream, the complaint states..
Horner says county police and prosecutors have been operating under a "memorandum of understanding" wherein they split the forfeiture proceeds with 70 percent going to the police and the remaining 30 percent going to prosecutors.
Represented by the Institute for Justice and the Shelbyville firm McNeely Stephenson, the plaintiffs want either a ruling declaring the cost-recovering provision unconstitutional or an injunction that forces the city to start keeping detailed records of expenses.
"Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of private property - even millions - is the subject of civil-forfeiture actions in Marion County courts, but police and prosecutors have sent not a single penny of civil-forfeiture revenue to the common school fund in at least the last five years," the complaint states.
With the number of forfeitures in Marion County nearly doubling since 2010, annual averages for forfeiture profits in 2011 and 2012 totaled $1.5 million, with $459,848 being awarded to the county prosecutor's office, according to the complaint.
Others named as defendants to the lawsuit are Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett, Indianapolis Chief of Police Troy Riggs, Director of Public Safety David Wantz and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry.
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice says hundreds of Hoosiers get caught in the crosshairs of the state's "forfeiture machine" and are denied access to their personal property.
Jeana Horner and her husband for example say they fought for over nine months to retrieve their seized vehicles.
The Horners had allegedly lent their vehicle to Jeana's son who was participating in a work-release program after a marijuana-related offense, and police made the seizure after a traffic stop. The police also seized another of the Horners' vehicles, a truck that was parked elsewhere.
Though the Jeana's son was arrested and charged with transporting marijuana, the charges were dismissed because of the illegal search, according to the complaint.
The Horners say it took another three weeks to recover their vehicles, one of which was drained of oil.
"This case shows the lengths to which police and prosecutors will go when they have a direct financial stake in the laws that they enforce," Institute for Justice attorney Samuel Gedge said in a statement. "The profit incentive created by civil forfeiture is so strong, officials charged with upholding the law are now the ones breaking it."
Joining the Horners as plaintiffs are Jennifer Thompson, Daniel Hargrove, Amy and Daniel Wills.
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