Cars seized by police are examined by Supreme Court in civil forfeiture case | ET REALITY


The Supreme Court appeared divided in an oral argument Monday over whether people whose cars or other property was seized by police should be made easier to advocate for its prompt return.

For one thing, several justices said, it is easy to abuse the practice of seizing property that is alleged to have been used to commit crimes, known as civil asset forfeiture.

“There are clearly some jurisdictions that are using civil forfeiture as a funding mechanism,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said, adding that some of them make it unreasonably difficult for innocent people to reclaim what has been taken from them.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor added that the problem was systemic. “We know there are abuses in the forfeiture system,” she said. “We know this because it has been documented repeatedly across the country.”

On the other hand, some judges said, the procedures available in the two cases before them, both from Alabama, may have been adequate. “Is this the case,” Justice Gorsuch asked, “that presents the due process problem that should concern us?”

Justice Sotomayor said she was concerned that the court’s eventual ruling was too broad. “Bad facts make bad laws, and I fear we are headed in that direction,” she said.

He added: “Do we leave open the possibility that there are states, jurisdictions, that are abusing this process?”

One of the cases began after Halima Culley purchased a 2015 Nissan Altima for her son to use at college. Police stopped him in 2019 and arrested him when they found marijuana. They also confiscated Ms. Culley’s car.

That same year, Lena Sutton lent her 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to a friend. He was pulled over for speeding and arrested after police found methamphetamine. Mrs Sutton’s car was also seized.

Alabama law allows so-called innocent owners to claim confiscated property, and both women eventually persuaded judges to return their cars. In each case it took more than a year, although there was some controversy over whether the women could have done more to speed up the process.

Justice Sotomayor said the disputes were characteristic of widespread problems.

“These cases are most important to one group of people: the innocent homeowners,” he said. “Because they are people who say they do not know about criminal activity. Many of these cases involve parents with teenage or near-teenage children involved in drug-related activities. Those who don’t may involve spouses or friends.”

Ms. Culley and Ms. Sutton filed class-action lawsuits in federal court saying they should have been granted immediate interim hearings to defend the return of the vehicles while their cases moved forward. The lower courts ruled against him.

Shay Dvoretzky, an attorney for the women, said requiring interim hearings would be “viable and effective.”

Justice Elena Kagan asked Edmund G. LaCour Jr., Alabama’s attorney general, why an immediate hearing should not be necessary.

“There are real problems here,” he said, “and those problems would be solved if a really quick probable cause determination could be achieved. Why shouldn’t we do that?”

Mr. LaCour responded that “ample process was provided” to the two women. He added that the government had “a strong interest also in making sure that crime is not profitable.”

Near the end of the argument, Justice Gorsuch reflected on the court’s task in Culley v. Marshall, No. 22-585.

“How do you write a limited opinion that does no harm here?” he asked.

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