Justices Uphold Civil Forfeiture Standards Amid Abuse Fears

By Katie Buehler | May 9, 2024, 10:58 AM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people whose property is seized during criminal investigations of others aren't entitled to a quicker process to seek its return, even though a majority of justices expressed concerns about the constitutionality of civil forfeiture systems in general.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices held that the 14th Amendment's due process clause does not require courts to hold separate preliminary hearings at the beginning of civil forfeiture cases to allow individuals to assert an "innocent owner" claim, argue they were unaware the property was being used in relation to a criminal act and request it back.

While there is no such constitutional requirement, state and federal lawmakers are free to mandate additional preliminary hearings and procedural steps if they see fit, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court.

"Our decision today does not preclude those legislatively prescribed innovations," he wrote. "Rather, our decision simply addresses the baseline protection of the due process clause."

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas concurred in the majority's decision but wrote separately to address concerns they share with the court's three dissenting liberal justices about the actual and potential abuse of the civil forfeiture process, which is often used to fund police departments and prosecutor offices.

"In short, law enforcement can seize cars, hold them indefinitely, and then rely on an owner's lack of resources to forfeit those cars to fund agency budgets, all without any initial check by a judge as to whether there is a basis to hold the car in the first place," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Thursday's opinion affirms an Eleventh Circuit panel's July 2022 decision dismissing class action constitutional challenges lodged against Alabama's civil forfeiture process by Halima Tariffa Culley and Lena Sutton, whose cars were seized while on loan to a family member or friend.

The women petitioned the Supreme Court in December 2022 to find Alabama's civil forfeiture scheme unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Law enforcement officials had seized their cars for allegedly being used to facilitate drug crimes and, under state law, Culley and Sutton would have to wait until a hearing to prove they were innocent owners that lacked knowledge of the car's connection to the drug crimes who deserve their property back.

Alternatively, they could post a bond equal to double their car's worth to access the property while the proceedings were pending.

Culley and Sutton claimed the Eleventh Circuit panel erred by finding the scheduling of a timely forfeiture proceeding satisfied their constitutional due process rights. Under a "speedy trial" test established in the high court's 1972 decision in Barker v. Wingo , property owners aren't prejudiced by Alabama's civil forfeiture process, the panel ruled.

In Barker, the Supreme Court said courts could determine whether the right to a speedy trial was violated based on the length of the challenged delay in court proceedings, the reason for it and the degree of prejudice it caused.

The application of that test to civil forfeiture proceedings was explicitly rejected by the Second Circuit in a 2002 opinion written by then-U.S. Circuit Judge Sotomayor, and every other circuit to consider the issue since then, except the Eleventh, has sided with the Second Circuit, Culley and Sutton argued.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall contended a preliminary hearing was not constitutionally required and that a ruling establishing the right would upend the current civil forfeiture system. Plus, Culley and Sutton already had a way to regain their property during court proceedings through the state's bond program.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote in Thursday's majority opinion that Supreme Court precedent agrees with Alabama's argument. Two cases from the 1980s — United States v. $8,850 and United States v. Von Neumann — have resolved this issue by holding that a timely forfeiture hearing is all that's required under the Constitution.

"After a state seizes and seeks civil forfeiture of personal property, due process requires a timely forfeiture hearing but does not require a separate preliminary hearing," Justice Kavanaugh wrote.

But that reasoning is "deeply flawed," according to Justice Sotomayor, who was joined in her dissent by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The two cases cited by Justice Kavanaugh dealt with forfeiture under customs laws and never touched on situations involving innocent owner claims, Justice Sotomayor said.

She argued the majority's opinion also went further than required to resolve Culley and Sutton's challenges to Alabama's civil forfeiture scheme. The Supreme Court granted review in this case to decide whether courts should use the "speedy trial" test established in Barker or a balancing test established under the Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Mathews v. Eldridge to determine if the due process clause requires a separate preliminary hearing in civil forfeiture cases.

"Today, the court holds that the due process clause never requires that minimal safeguard," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "In doing so, it sweeps far more broadly than the narrow question presented and hamstrings lower courts from addressing myriad abuses of the civil forfeiture system."

Justice Sotomayor criticized the "lack of standardized procedural safeguards" in civil forfeiture proceedings, claiming it incentivizes law enforcement to seize high-value property, such as cars, even if they weren't directly used to commit a crime.

Police departments and cooperating prosecutors can then initiate months- or years-long court proceedings to either discourage property owners from seeking its return or force them to pay a large fee in exchange for the property.

"These cash incentives not only encourage counties to create labyrinthine processes for retrieving property in the hopes that innocent owners will abandon attempts at recovery, they also influence which laws police enforce, how they enforce them, and who they enforce them against," Justice Sotomayor wrote.

Those incentives have turned civil forfeiture into "a booming business," Justice Gorsuch wrote in his concurring opinion.

In their separate opinions, Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch cited the same studies and amici briefs showing that civil forfeiture proceedings usually target low-income, Black and Hispanic populations because they are less likely to spend the money and time it takes to win their property back.

Although Supreme Court precedent shows there may be some exceptions to the due process clause, Justice Gorsuch wrote he doesn't believe they should apply in the civil forfeiture context.

"In this nation, the right to a jury trial before the government may take life, liberty, or property has always been the rule," he wrote. "Yes, some exceptions exist. But perhaps it is past time for this court to examine more fully whether and to what degree contemporary civil forfeiture practices align with that rule and those exceptions."

Representatives for Marshall couldn't be immediately reached Thursday, and counsel for Culley and Sutton didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Culley and Sutton are represented by Shay Dvoretzky of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

The attorney general of Alabama and the Alabama municipalities of Leesburg and Satsuma are represented by Edmund Gerard LaCour Jr. of the Office of the Alabama Attorney General.

The case is Culley et al. v. Marshall et al., case number 22-585, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

--Editing by Daniel King.

Update: This story has been updated with more information from Thursday's ruling.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!