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Supreme Court Delivers Key 6-3 Ruling

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


A split US Supreme Court ruled that when authorities seize cars and other property used in drug crimes, even when the property belongs to so-called innocent owners, they are not required to hold a prompt hearing.

Two Alabaman women who had to wait more than a year for their cars to be returned had their claims denied by the justices in a 6-3 vote. Police pulled over and seized the cars when they were being driven by others after finding drugs.

Civil forfeiture allows authorities to take property without needing evidence that it has been used unlawfully. The practice is dubbed “legalized theft” by opponents.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the conservative majority that an owner must have a civil forfeiture hearing on time to find out if they will lose the property permanently. But he said, the Constitution doesn’t also specify a separate hearing to decide whether police can keep cars or other property on temporary basis.

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In a dissent for the liberal members of the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that civil forfeiture is “vulnerable to abuse” since police departments often have a financial incentive to keep the property.

In essence, Sotomayor said, “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.”

Claiming they were entitled to a quick court hearing that would have resulted in the cars being returned to them far sooner, Halima Culley and Lena Sutton filed federal lawsuits. The report said nothing about either woman knowing about or participating in the illegal activity.

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Sutton had loaned her buddy a car. Leesburg, Alabama police took it when they arrested him for trafficking methamphetamine.

During the 14 months that Sutton was without a car, her lawyers said in court records, she was unable to find work, pay her bills, or show up for her mental health appointments.

Culley had given her son a car to drive to college. When Satsuma, Alabama, police pulled over the car, they found marijuana and a loaded hangun inside. They charged the son with marijuana possession while keeping the car.

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Joining Justice Neil Gorsuch in a statement, Justice Clarence Thomas said that more basic questions about the use of civil forfeiture remained unresolved. Gorsuch belonged to Thursday’s majority.

Observing that civil forfeiture has grown to be a “booming business,” Gorsuch suggested that the court use a future case to determine if the current civil forfeiture procedure complies with the constitutional provisions that prohibit the taking of property “without due process of law.”

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