Indianapolis Cops Violated the Constitution by Holding Cars for Six Months Without Filing Forfeiture Paperwork

A federal judge in Indiana issued a sharp rebuke to civil forfeiture abuse on Monday, ruling that the Indianapolis Metro Police Department may no longer hold vehicles for up to six months before deciding whether to file official forfeiture paperwork.

Using asset forfeiture, police departments and federal law enforcement are often able to seize property—including cars, homes, cash, jewelry, and other valuables—if they say the property was used in a crime or was purchased with drug money. Though cops claim that forfeiture helps them target drug cartels and other big-time criminals, it is often used to seize small amounts of cash and often targets poor communities where people are less likely to have the resources to regain their assets through the legal system.

While police across the country can seize property without first getting a conviction, Indiana law lets cops go even further. They are allowed to seize vehicles and hold them for up to six months without even having to file forfeiture paperwork, leaving individuals who had their vehicles seized with no legal recourse whatsoever for long periods of time.

The case decided Monday was a class action lawsuit challenging those seizures, which plaintiffs said violated their right to due process, according to The Indianapolis Star.

"The Court concludes that the statutory provisions allowing for the seizure and retention of vehicles without providing an opportunity for an individual to challenge the pre-forfeiture deprivation are unconstitutional," U.S. District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled.

According to Justice Department data cited by the Star, Indiana State Police seized more than $2.2 million in personal property in 2014. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) seized roughly $48,022 in personal property that same year.

Monday's ruling only applies to vehicles seized by the IMPD, but further reforms to Indiana's civil asset forfeiture laws are working their way through the state legislature. In March, the state Senate passed a bill to require a criminal conviction before police could seize property through forfeiture. The bill would also require "clear and convincing evidence" that the property in question was used in a crime or purchased with the proceeds of a crime, effectively raising the legal standard that cops would have to meet when filing forfeiture actions. Those reforms, if passed into law, would put Indiana near the forefront of asset forfeiture reform.

Ten bills dealing with forfeiture were introduced during the 2017 session, but only one passed both chambers this year. That one calls for an interim study committee to examine Indiana's civil forfeiture laws and recommend changes.

A separate lawsuit challenging Indiana's forfeiture laws was filed in February by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. In that suit, the plaintiffs say law enforcement groups must stop using forfeiture funds in their own budgets, citing the fact that the Indiana state constitution says "all forfeitures" must be committed to the state's school fund. Police and prosecutors say they use forfeited funds only to cover expenses, but the suit contends that local prosecutors have cut deals with cops to keep the proceeds of forfeiture actions.