Supreme Court rules owners of seized cars are not entitled to immediate hearing

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court, Friday, June 23, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
The Supreme Court considered appeals from two women whose cars were seized by Alabama police who had arrested the drivers on drug charges. (Mariam Zuhaib / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court refused on Thursday to give innocent owners of seized cars a right to an immediate hearing to reclaim their vehicles.

Instead, the justices in a 6-3 decision said the Constitution requires a “timely hearing” to consider whether the police had properly arrested the driver and seized the vehicle, but that may take weeks or months. In the interim, the innocent owner may be without their car.

The court considered appeals from two women whose cars were seized by Alabama police who had arrested the drivers on drug charges.

Halima Culley had lent her car to her college-age son. Lena Sutton lent her car to a friend. Within two weeks, the police filed a notice to the two women that their cars may be forfeited, and they did not respond.

Later, they joined a class-action lawsuit seeking damages for the state’s failure to give them a speedy hearing and to return their vehicles.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, speaking for the court, said states have adopted different rules for forfeitures, and the justices were wary of requiring a second, preliminary hearing in all forfeiture cases.

“When police seize and then seek civil forfeiture of a car that was used to commit a drug offense, the Constitution requires a timely forfeiture hearing,” he wrote in Culley vs. Marshall. “The question here is whether the Constitution also requires a separate preliminary hearing to determine whether the police may retain the car pending the forfeiture hearing. This Court’s precedents establish that the answer is no.”

Culley waited a year before filing a complaint that she was an innocent owner, and a month later, a state judge ordered her car to be returned to her. Sutton also had her car returned after she asserted she was the innocent owner.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.

“A police officer can seize your car if he claims it is connected to a crime committed by someone else. The police department can then keep the car for months or even years until the state ultimately seeks ownership of it through civil forfeiture. In most states, the resulting proceeds from the car’s sale go to the police department’s budget,” Sotomayor said.

The two women who sued said the Constitution “requires a prompt, post-seizure opportunity for innocent car owners to argue to a judge why they should retain their cars pending that final forfeiture determination. Today, the Court holds that the Due Process Clause never requires that minimal safeguard.”

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch concurred in the result but said the court needed to devise better rules in this area.

“In future cases, with the benefit of full briefing, I hope we might begin the task of assessing how well the profound changes in civil forfeiture practices we have witnessed in recent decades comport with the Constitution’s enduring guarantee that ‘no person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’”

The National Federation of Independent Business called the decision a disappointment for small-business owners.

“When it comes to civil asset forfeiture, small-business owners who rent, sell, or conduct cash transactions are particularly vulnerable to harm,” said Beth Milito, executive director of NFIB’s Small Business Legal Center. “Because of this decision, many small business property owners will continue to be targeted and injured by a civil asset forfeiture procedure that violates due process and punishes businesses for the actions of the public.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.