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Judge declares Indiana's civil forfeiture law unconstitutional

Indiana and many other states have civil forfeiture statutes that permit law enforcement officers to seize a suspect's property, including automobiles, without filing criminal charges. Under Indiana's law, property may be held for 180 days before police are required to file a civil forfeiture complaint to determine ownership of the property. A federal judge has recently ruled that this statute violates the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, thereby giving criminal defense attorneys and their clients a very important judicial victory.

The case began in September 2016 when an officer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department stopped a driver for a traffic violation and found a small amount of marijuana in the car. Based on the discovery of marijuana, the officer impounded the man's car. The suspect's attorney then launched a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all criminal defendants whose cars had been seized by the police. Between November 2016 and February 2017, law enforcement agencies in Indianapolis had seized 169 vehicles, or about 11 per week.

Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that the law was unconstitutional because seizure of an automobile can cause a person significant hardship. Among the examples of such inconvenience cited by the court were the need to continue making payments on a loan that was used to purchase the vehicle and necessity of making other arrangements for daily transportation. The court invalidated the Indiana law because it did not provide a mechanism by which the owner could speedily challenge the validity of the seizure.

The demise of the forfeiture statute does not affect the determination of guilt or innocence in any of the cases that involved forfeitures. Nevertheless, the invalidation of the statute deprives law enforcement agencies of an exceedingly unfair tool that has often been used to pressure defendants into accepting less than fair plea agreements or otherwise compromising their defense.

Source: Forbes, "Federal Judge Rules Indiana Seizing Cars with Civil Forfeiture Is Unconstitutional," Nick Sibilla, Aug. 31, 2017

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