Tag Archives | Alvarez v. Smith

Adventures in Asset Forfeiture

Asset forfeiture laws in many states allow the police to seize property that has supposedly been used to commit a crime, and then keep the proceeds for themselves. Often, these laws victimize people who have not been convicted of any crime, and indeed did not even know that their property might have been misused. They also often give the owner little or no opportunity to challenge the seizure, thereby flagrantly violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Needless to say, such perverse incentives lead to many abuses, as documented in a 2010 report by the Institute for Justice.

Two excellent recent articles by George Will and Radley Balko describe some particularly egregious examples.

Here is Will:

Russ Caswell, 68, is bewildered: “What country are we in?” He and his wife, Pat, are ensnared in a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding in Orwellian language….

In the lawsuit titled United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts, the government is suing an inanimate object, the motel Caswell’s father built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million. The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. They are being persecuted by two governments eager to profit from what is antiseptically called the “equitable sharing” of the fruits of civil forfeiture, a process of government enrichment that often is indistinguishable from robbery….

Since 1994, about 30 motel customers have been arrested on drug-dealing charges. Even if those police figures are accurate — the police have a substantial monetary incentive to exaggerate — these 30 episodes involved less than 5/100ths of 1 percent of the 125,000


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Asset Forfeiture: “A License to Steal”

Radley Balko has an interesting article in Reason detailing the many abuses of the asset forfeiture system, which often allows police to seize property without compensation – even in cases where the owners have not been convicted of any crime:

Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Nearly every year, according to Justice Department statistics, the federal government sets new records for asset forfeiture. And under many state laws, the situation is even worse: State officials can seize property without a warrant and need only show “probable cause” that the booty was connected to a drug crime in order to keep it, as opposed to the criminal standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, owners of seized property all too often have a heavier burden of proof than the government officials who stole their stuff.

Municipalities have come to rely on confiscated property for revenue. Police and prosecutors use forfeiture proceeds to fund not only general operations but junkets, parties, and swank office equipment. A cottage industry has sprung up to offer law enforcement agencies instruction on how to take and keep property more efficiently.

As I have argued elsewhere, many such seizures are a fairly blatant violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars state seizures of “property” without “due process of law.” In many cases, the authorities hold on to the seized property for months at a time without giving innocent owners any opportunity to contest the seizure whatsoever. If that isn’t deprivation of property without “due process,” it’s hard to see what is. The Supreme […]

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Supreme Court Dismisses Potentially Important Property Rights Case as Moot

The Supreme Court has dismissed as moot, Alvarez v. Smith, a potentially important property rights case [HT: Josh Blackman]. As I explained in this Findlaw column, Alvarez involved an important issue in constitutional property law. The plaintiffs were property owners whose cars or other possessions had been seized by Chicago police and held for many months or years at a time, without the owners having any opportunity to challenging the seizure in any kind of judicial hearing, and in some cases without any criminal charges being filed against the owners by the government. The car owners argued that these seizures were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee that states cannot seize private property without “due process of law.”

The Court decided that the case was moot because the state had settled the case and returned all three cars to their owners prior to oral argument, and also reached settlement agreements addressing the other seized property. This is an understandable ruling. Far less defensible is the Court’s decision to vacate the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that ruled in favor of the property owners. After all, the case clearly was not moot at the time the Seventh Circuit issued its decision in 2008. As Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court points out, the Supremes don’t normally vacate a lower court opinion when a case is dismissed as moot because it has been settled. In this case, however, the Court relied on the rule that lower court opinions usually are vacated if the settlement occurred as a result of “happenstance” for reasons unrelated to the existence of a federal case. This rule strikes me as a dubious rationale for vacating opinions that were issued before any settlement occurred. Whatever the parties’ motives for settling later, the Seventh […]

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The Wall Street Journal on Alvarez v. Smith

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the property owners in Alvarez v. Smith, an important property rights case that I have been trying to draw attention to for a long time (see my recent Findlaw column on it and previous posts on the subject here and here):

With states and cities struggling with deficits, one fertile source of revenue has been money or property seized by police in possible connection with crimes. Not to be left behind, Illinois has pursued this tactic aggressively, using a law which encourages both police departments and prosecutors to take property for forfeiture, long before the accused ever get their day in court.

This practice was challenged at the Supreme Court recently in Alvarez v. Smith, where six people allege that police use of the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act violated their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Though forfeiture laws are designed to strip criminals of ill-gotten gains, three of the six were never charged with a crime. All six had their property or money taken without a warrant and had to wait for months or years without a hearing on the legitimacy of the forfeiture…

Under Illinois law, the state has 187 days after property is seized to file forfeiture proceedings. Meanwhile, of forfeited funds seized, 25% lands in the lap of the prosecutor’s office. Another 65% goes to the department that seized the property, giving police added incentive to take the property to pad their budgets. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted this police incentive with concern….

We’re all for relieving criminals of illegal profits, but civil forfeiture laws must be used with caution and oversight lest they infringe on fundamental rights. Alvarez v. Smith provides an opportunity to


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My Findlaw Column on Alvarez v. Smith – A Key Property Rights Case Argued Before the Supreme Court Today

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


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