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Judge: Indiana's vehicle seizure law violates Constitution

Posted at 6:40 PM, Aug 21, 2017

The law that allows Indiana police to seize vehicles suspected of being used in drug trafficking violates the Fifth and 14th amendments of the Constitution, a U.S. district judge ruled Friday.

In her ruling in “Leroy Washington vs. Marion County Prosecutor,” Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson found that it is unconstitutional for police to seize and hold vehicles for extended periods, on nothing but their own probable cause determination, without a post-seizure, pre-forfeiture hearing.

The class-action suit was filed on behalf of Leroy Washington, of Indianapolis, against the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, IMPD, the mayor of Indianapolis and the chief of police. It stems from the seizure of a vehicle owned and operated by Washington on Sept. 21, 2016.

Washington was arrested and charged with, among other things, dealing in marijuana. As a result of the arrest, officers had Washington’s car towed and held for forfeiture. On Nov. 1, 2016, Washington made a demand for the return of his property. The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 2. The court’s ruling notes that Washington’s car has since been returned to him.

Stinson’s ruling affects only the vehicle seizure portion of Indiana’s civil asset forfeiture law, while leaving larger questions about the practice as a whole unanswered.

As part of her reasoning, Stinson noted that vehicles are “a particularly important form of personal property” because of their necessity for many to transport themselves and to earn a living.

Stinson also noted that Indiana’s current law allows police to hold a vehicle without taking any action at all – in other words, without filing a civil forfeiture claim – for up to 180 days.

Stinson’s order effectively bans law enforcement in Indiana from seizing vehicles suspected of being used in criminal activity without providing a pre-forfeiture hearing.

Vehicle seizure is part of the larger issue of civil asset forfeiture currently being debated by the Indiana General Assembly. Last week, the Courts and Judiciary Summer Study Committee met to hear testimony from interested parties – including Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, who was one of the defendants in the Washington lawsuit – on both sides of the issue.

FULL STORY | Summer study committee hears about ‘unresolved question’ hanging over civil asset forfeiture

For law enforcement, the question is an important one not just because it provides an avenue of crime interdiction when prosecution might not be available – but also because law enforcement agencies in Indiana are able to deduct their costs from the value of assets seized before turning them over to the state’s Common School Fund.

Delaware County Prosecutor Jeff Arnold told the summer study committee last week that his office used seized funds to purchase laptops and audio-visual equipment.

“Civil asset forfeiture allowed me to buy laptops for all my deputies so they were able to bring them into court,” Arnold said. “I know that sounds rather primitive, but that’s where we were able to find the money.”

A bill introduced during the 2017 legislative session, Senate Bill 8, would have overhauled Indiana’s civil asset forfeiture law. The bill’s author, State Senator Phil Boots (R-Crawfordsville), said he intends to reintroduce the bill next year.

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