SCOTUS: Culley v. Marshall - civil asset forfeiture challenge for prompt probable-cause hearings

Issue before or regarding the Supreme Court of The United States

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The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that it will consider Culley v. Attorney General of Alabama, a case concerning whether someone whose property is seized will receive an immediate probable-cause hearing, or must wait months or years before they have an opportunity to contest the seizure. Prompt post-seizure hearings are particularly important for innocent third-party property owners in civil forfeiture cases, who do not currently have any opportunity to show that they did not know their property—often a car—was being used for an illegal purpose.

“The government should not be able to take your car without providing you with a prompt opportunity to challenge the seizure,” said Dan Alban, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), the public interest law firm that has been leading efforts nationwide to end civil forfeiture. “In criminal cases, after the government arrests you, it must hold a probable cause hearing shortly after the arrest so that a judge can make a preliminary determination about whether the arrest was legitimate. The government should provide the same kind of prompt hearing after it takes your property.”

The two cases consolidated in Culley involved car owners whose cars were seized in Alabama, but who were not themselves at the scene of the seizure and were never charged with a crime. Both cases are on appeal from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the civil forfeiture proceeding itself provides sufficient due process to protect innocent owners, even if it might take years for them to get their property back.

In Serrano v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, IJ represented truck owner Gerardo Serrano, who had his Ford F-250 truck seized at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, in a case about whether due process requires a prompt initial hearing after the government seizes a vehicle through civil forfeiture so a court can decide whether there is justifiable grounds for the seizure. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. When it did so, IJ predicted: “This issue will continue knocking on the Supreme Court’s door.” Now that it has, IJ will join the fight to protect property rights in this important case.

Civil forfeiture is a fundamentally un-American concept that allows local, state, and federal law enforcement to seize and keep billions of dollars in cash, cars, homes, and other property without charging, let alone convicting anyone of a crime. Worse, law enforcement is incentivized to do this, as they generally keep the proceeds of the seizures for their benefit.

“The Institute for Justice is committed to fighting this pernicious practice in every forum,” said Scott Bullock, President and Chief Counsel for the Institute for Justice. “We will support the property owners in Culley and others who are wronged by civil forfeiture until this inherently abusive process is brought to an end.”

From the link above:

Civil forfeiture is a fundamentally un-American concept that allows local, state, and federal law enforcement to seize and keep billions of dollars in cash, cars, homes, and other property without charging, let alone convicting anyone of a crime. Worse, law enforcement is incentivized to do this, as they generally keep the proceeds of the seizures for their benefit.


The people who do this to their fellow citizens are thieves. Pure, plain and simple. They operate under the color of law but are thieves. They have no business in law enforcement what-so-ever.

It was the supreme court who made this horse shit possible.
From the link:

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority on Monday appeared sympathetic to Alabama officials who defended a law that allowed police to seize and impound cars after drug arrests despite the owners having no direct ties to the alleged crime.

The case argued before the justices tests the power of law enforcement to retain property seized by police that belongs to people not charged with a crime.

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Culley v. Marshall, a case challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws on the grounds that they did not provide for a prompt hearing after innocent owners’ cars were seized. The Institute for Justice (IJ), which defends property rights nationwide and defends property owners from civil forfeiture, filed an amicus brief on behalf of two clients. IJ Senior Attorneys Dan Alban and Rob Johnson attended the argument in person.

“Without a prompt hearing after their property is seized, innocent owners can lose the use of their vehicle for months or years, causing great hardship,” said Dan Alban, IJ Senior Attorney and Co-Director of IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “Today, the Court asked tough questions about how to apply past precedent in evaluating the adequacy of forfeiture procedures. However the Court answers those questions, we hope a majority will recognize that it simply is not constitutional for the government to hold someone’s car or other property for months or even years without any way to get a hearing.”

Several of the justices expressed serious concerns about the potential for abuse posed by civil forfeiture. For example, Justice Sotomayor said, “We know there are abuses of the forfeiture system. We know it because it’s been documented throughout the country repeatedly, of the incentives that police are given to keep its value.” Likewise, Justice Gorsuch noted that “clearly there are some jurisdictions that are using civil forfeiture as funding mechanisms.” Justice Kagan further commented that “we know a lot more now than we did when [prior cases] were decided about how civil forfeiture is being used in some states, about the kinds of abuses it’s subject to, about the kind of incentives operating on law enforcement officers that tend toward those abuses.”

“There was also a lot of discussion today about history,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson, “The key takeaway is that the generation who wrote the Constitution wouldn’t recognize modern civil forfeiture. Early forfeiture laws were limited to a narrow class of cases, mostly involving pirates and smugglers, and procedures were designed to move quickly. Modern forfeiture laws have more in common with the laws that sparked the revolution than anything the framers would have enacted.”

The attorney who argued the case for the property owners cited IJ’s amicus brief in his argument, noting IJ’s historical research on early forfeiture statutes that directed federal courts to “hear and determine” forfeiture cases after just a brief 14-day notice period.

IJ recently scored a victory in 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a similar subject. The appeals court ruled that Wayne County violated the rights of Detroiters by not offering prompt court hearings within two weeks of their vehicles being seized. In a concurrence, Judge Amul Thapar suggested that the time should be even shorter: within two days of seizure. The Sixth Circuit’s decision was discussed repeatedly at today’s hearing. More information about civil forfeiture, including links to IJ’s current cases and research, is available at:


Sotomayor, Gorsuch appear to team up against Alabama in civil asset forfeiture case​

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments Monday in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which litigants asked the justices to clarify what procedure is due to “innocent owners” and others who fight back against the seizure of personal property by state governments.

The proceedings brought together two justices typically known for their divergent views: the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by Barack Obama, and the Donald Trump-appointed small-government proponent Justice Neil Gorsuch. Though the two have found themselves on opposite sides of many rulings, questions about the procedural safeguards necessary to protect against government overreach in asset forfeiture gave the two a rare — though not entirely unprecedented — moment of common ground.


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