US Supreme Court upholds civil forfeiture without immediate hearing News
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US Supreme Court upholds civil forfeiture without immediate hearing

The US Supreme Court decided Thursday that police officers may continue to seize cars that defendants allegedly use to commit a crime, without an immediate hearing. States often allow that kind of seizure—known as civil forfeiture—when officers believe that the car is connected to a crime in which the owner is not involved.

Justice Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, noted that the constitutional right to due process depends on the circumstances. States cannot take real property without a prior hearing, but personal property is different because it could be hidden before a hearing takes place. So when police officers seize cars, the owner only has a right to a timely hearing after the seizure, and not a prompt one, according to the Court.

The car owners in this case had argued that due process does give them a right to a prompt hearing under Mathews v. Eldridge. In that case, the Court created a test that balances the impact of seizing particular property or rights against the burden of having more procedures in place. Justice Kavanaugh responded that no prompt hearing is required under the Court’s precedent and that he would reach the same result under the Mathews test.

Justice Gorsuch concurred, but raised concerns about “whether, and to what extent, contemporary civil forfeiture practices can be squared with the Constitution’s promise of due process.” He criticized law enforcement agencies for using civil forfeiture as a source of income, seizing property that is easily convertible to cash and small enough to discourage owners to go to court to get it back. He also noted that this practice disproportionately affects “the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests.”

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor echoed Justice Gorsuch’s concerns: “officers have a financial incentive to target marginalized groups, such as low-income communities of color, who are less likely to have the resources to challenge the forfeiture in court.” She also highlighted that many people need their car to get to work. And she pointed to law enforcement agencies imposing high fees and holding on to property for years before going to court—”all without any initial check by a judge as to whether there is a basis to hold the car in the first place.”

Civil forfeiture is a growing practice, although the government does not always win. For example, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in January this year that the FBI went too far when it seized 700 safety-deposit boxes from private individuals.