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Supreme Court Rules No Quick Hearing Required When Police Seize Property

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


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, a divided US. Supreme Court decided.

The justices voted 6-3 to reject the claims of two Alabama women who had to wait more than a year for the return of their cars. When the cars were being driven by others, police pulled them over and took them after discovering drugs, the Associated Press reported.

Civil forfeiture permits authorities to seize property without requiring proof that it has been used illegally. Opponents call the practice “legalized theft.”

For the conservative majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that a civil forfeiture hearing to ascertain if an owner will lose the property permanently must take place on time. However, he added, the Constitution does not also call for a different hearing to determine whether police may temporarily retain cars or other property.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent for the liberal members of the court that since police departments frequently have a financial incentive to retain the property, civil forfeiture is “vulnerable to abuse.”

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

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Halima Culley and Lena Sutton filed federal lawsuits, claiming they were entitled to a speedy court hearing that would have led to the cars being returned to them far sooner. Nothing in the report indicated that either woman was aware of or engaged in the illicit activity.

Sutton had given her friend a loaner car. When they detained him for trafficking methamphetamine, Leesburg, Alabama, police took it.

During the 14 months that Sutton was without a car, her attorneys stated in court documents, she was unable to find work, pay her bills, or attend her mental health appointments.

Culley had given her son a car to drive to college. A loaded hangun and marijuana were discovered in the car when Satsuma, Alabama police stopped it. Keeping the car, they charged the son with marijuana possession.

Justice Clarence Thomas joined Justice Neil Gorsuch in a statement that said more fundamental issues regarding the application of civil forfeiture remained unanswered. Gorsuch was a member of Thursday’s majority.

Noting that civil forfeiture has become a “booming business,” Gorsuch wrote the court should use a future case to assess whether the modern practice of civil forfeiture is in line with constitutional guarantees that property may not be taken “without due process of law.”

The Supreme Court made headlines late last week in a separate case.

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The nation’s highest court turned down a challenge to Texas voting rules that let seniors automatically vote by mail but not younger people.

Older voters can ask for an absentee ballot for any reason in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In other states, older voters can only do this in certain situations.

Just as it rejected a similar challenge to Indiana’s voting laws in 2021, the court declined to hear an appeal from three Texas voters.

Additionally, it twice declined to hear earlier versions of the Texas lawsuit that the Texas Democratic Party had filed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Most states either mail ballots to all voters or let any resident ask for an absentee ballot.

Yet, Texas said it has taken a different approach to safeguarding the integrity of voting. It also acknowledges that older voters may have limited mobility or other issues that make it more difficult for them to vote in person.

Anyone could ask for a mail-in ballot, but the state said that would make voter fraud more likely.

The 2022 midterm elections saw about one-third of voters send in their ballots.

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