HomeCrimeSotomayor, Gorsuch unite in civil asset forfeiture case

Sotomayor, Gorsuch unite in civil asset forfeiture case

Left: Justice Neil Gorsuch. Right: Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments Monday in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which litigants asked the justices to clarify what procedure is due to “innocent owners” and others who fight back against the seizure of personal property by state governments.

The proceedings brought together two justices typically known for their divergent views: the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by Barack Obama, and the Donald Trump-appointed small-government proponent Justice Neil Gorsuch. Though the two have found themselves on opposite sides of many rulings, questions about the procedural safeguards necessary to protect against government overreach in asset forfeiture gave the two a rare — though not entirely unprecedented — moment of common ground.

The dispute before the Court involves two Alabama women whose cars were seized by police while someone else was driving. Halima Culley’s son was pulled over by police and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The car was registered to Halima Culley, and although she was not implicated in the drug case, she went without her car for 20 months before finally prevailing on summary judgment on an “innocent owner” claim.

Likewise, Lena Sutton lent her car to a friend to run an errand. The friend was pulled over by police, then arrested after a search of the vehicle turned up methamphetamine. Like Culley, Sutton asserted and succeeded in proving an innocent owner claim — but not before over a year had passed.

Neither Culley nor Sutton were found to have committed any wrongdoing, but both women were deprived of the use of their cars for lengthy periods of time.  They each raised claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that Alabama’s failure to provide them a prompt hearing constituted a violation of their civil rights that caused them significant hardship.

One advocacy group that urged the Supreme Court to take up the case called Alabama’s forfeiture “a modern-day form of highway robbery which empowers police to seize and keep private property (cash, jewelry, cars, homes and other valuables) they ‘suspect’ may be connected to a crime.”

Now, the justices have been called upon to decide whether Culley, Sutton, and others similarly situated are entitled to a “retention hearing” that could accelerate the process of returning seized property. Much of the discussion Monday related to various questions about which analytical framework should be applied to assess the procedures required for civil forfeiture.

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