Findlaw has just posted a column I wrote on Alvarez v. Smith, an important Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause property rights case that was heard by the Supreme Court today:
Today, the Supreme Court hears Alvarez v. Smith, an important case that will affect the constitutional property rights of many people around the country but has failed to attract the attention it deserves.
In Alvarez, the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional for Chicago police to seize cars and other property and hold it for many months at a time a without giving the owners any chance challenge the seizure. The Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act (DAFPA) allows the police to seize property that may have been involved in a drug-related crime and hold onto it for up to 187 days without any kind of legal hearing. This rule applies even to property owned by completely innocent persons who simply had their possessions caught up in a drug investigation through no fault of their own… The three car owners involved in Alvarez were never even charged with a crime, much less convicted….
Laws like DAFPA pose a serious danger to the property rights of innocent people caught up in the War on Drugs. In many jurisdictions, police departments are allowed to auction off property seized in drug investigations and keep the profits, giving them a clear incentive to seize cars first and ask questions later. Moreover, many of the people whose cars are seized are poor or minorities. They often lack the political power necessary to persuade police to release their property without judicial intervention.
The Court of Appeals ruled that DAFPA violate the property owners’ rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It should have been an