Tuesday, September 19, 2023
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Innocent owners of cars used in crimes get high court audience

The justices agreed to hear a case arising out of Alabama’s seizure of vehicles from their owners for crimes committed in them by other drivers.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In 2019, two Alabama women had their vehicles taken by the state over crimes they were not even charged with committing. They didn't get them back until over a year later.

Now, after granting their petition to hear their case on Monday, the Supreme Court will determine what due process the women and others like them are entitled to during pending forfeiture proceedings.

Halima Culley's son was driving a car registered in her name when he was pulled over by police and arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Satsuma, Alabama. The city seized the vehicle and the state filed a civil asset forfeiture action in court. It wasn't until 20 months later that the state court granted Culley's summary judgment action and allowed the return of her vehicle under Alabama's innocent-owner defense.

Similarly, Lena Sutton's vehicle was being borrowed by a friend to run errands when police in Leesburg pulled him over and conducted a search. The driver was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and the police seized Sutton's vehicle. It wasn't until over a year later that Sutton was also found an innocent owner by the court and was able to get her vehicle back from the state.

The two women filed federal lawsuits claiming the state violated their rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments by failing to provide them with a prompt post-deprivation hearing to determine whether they could retain their property. But their claims were shot down.

Judges in the Southern and Northern Districts of Alabama both held that the retention during litigation of a vehicle seized under the state's civil asset forfeiture statute was not a “fine” and thus could not violate the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause.

They also held that the 14th Amendment claims failed because the owners were not deprived of their due process right to a speedy trial as applied under the test set forth by the 11th Circuit in the 1927 decision Barker v. Wingo. This precedent, however, conflicts with those of other federal circuit courts that have considered the issue.

The 11th Circuit stands alone in its reliance on Barker to determine due process issues relating to civil forfeiture. Other circuits have traditionally applied the Mathews v. Eldridge test, which requires the consideration of three distinct factors: the private interest that will be affected, risk of erroneous deprivation, and the government's interest, including fiscal and administrative burdens.

Culley and Sutton appealed the district courts' decisions, but an 11th Circuit panel affirmed in a consolidated ruling on the basis that the court was bound by its prior precedent.

After the Atlanta-based appeals court voted not to rehear the case en banc, the women filed their petition for writ of certiorari to the nation's top court last December. In it, attorney Brian M. Clark of Wiggins Childs argued that their claims are not concerned with the speed that the civil forfeiture proceedings are conducted, but they instead seek a "prompt post-seizure opportunity" to challenge the city's need to retain their vehicles during that time.

"Here, once the vehicles have been seized, and concerns for establishing jurisdiction and immediate prophylactic custody are satisfied, we find that the due process clause requires that claimants be given an early opportunity to test the probable validity of further deprivation, including probable cause for the initial seizure, and to ask whether other measures, short of continued impoundment, would satisfy the legitimate interests of the city in protecting the vehicles from sale or destruction pendente lite," Clark wrote.

The attorney added, "It has been judicially determined in these cases that plaintiffs were innocent owners. The additional safeguard of the prompt, post-deprivation hearing would have made the court aware of the very facts it relied upon to ultimately release the vehicles."

Clark further argued that the state's need to prevent the vehicles from being sold or destroyed before a civil asset forfeiture hearing "does not necessarily justify continued retention when other means of accomplishing those goals are available," such as posting bonds or issuing restraining orders to prohibit the sale or destruction of the vehicle.

Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall filed a brief in opposition to the Supreme Court taking on the case, arguing that there is no split between the circuit courts and that the women "received all the process they were constitutionally due under either test."

The city and state contest that they acted in accordance with Alabama law, which states that all "conveyances” used “in any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of any” illegal substance may be civilly forfeited to the State.

"As an initial matter, petitioners’ 'innocent owner' status does not entitle them to special solicitude under either test. For centuries, this court has confirmed that in rem civil forfeitures need not inquire into the guilt or innocence of the property’s owner—only the use of the property itself in a prohibited act," wrote Marshall, a Republican. "That Alabama chose to enact statutory protections for innocent owners thus does not entitle those owners to heightened constitutional protections."

The attorney general argued that the women's due process rights were not violated because a vehicle's owner may challenge an unlawful seizure by filing a motion through the court before the state initiates civil judicial forfeiture proceedings. He said that to get their cars back pending resolution of the proceedings, they should have asked for an expedited review or posted bond, which is required to be double the value of the property.

The justices have not yet scheduled arguments for the case.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Government

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