Seized Property, Police and the US Supreme Court

Posted November 10, 2009 in Criminal Law by

Did you hear about the man in Minnesota who was arrested and given a DUI after he drove his motorized recliner into a parked car? I’m not sure which is the stranger part of the story: That someone would take the time to add wheels and a motor to a reclining chair, or that you could be charged with driving a chair while intoxicated.

As of Friday, this strange story got a bit stranger: Proctor, Minn., police report that they sold the motorized recliner on eBay for $10,099.99 to an unidentified bidder.

State and federal laws allow government officials, including the police, to seize property if it has been used in the commission of a crime, or if it was bought with the proceeds of a crime. A Wall Street Journal article estimates that $1 billion in cash and property is seized annually in the United States. In fact, some critics argue that forfeiture laws are less about punishing the guilty, and more about enriching government agencies, which keep the income earned from selling seized property.

It’s easy to understand the logic behind seizing a drug dealer’s exotic car collection, or seizing Bernie Madoff’s luxury homes. But imagine you lent your car to a friend who’s later arrested for DUI or soliciting a prostitute. How would you feel if the police impounded your car and refused to return it?

The government has a process for returning seized property to its rightful (and innocent) owners, but that process can drag out for years, and many people often give up rather than pursuing the matter. However, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case to determine whether innocent property owners are entitled to a prompt hearing to reclaim their property. In the case before the court, the plaintiffs argued that Chicago officials were taking too long to return property seized in drug cases. In Illinois, it can take up to 6 months following seizure before a hearing is held. The plaintiffs said that was too long, and a federal appeals court agreed.

"Our society is, for good or not, highly dependent on the automobile," wrote Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Terence Evans in the decision. "Consider the owner of an automobile which is seized because the driver–not the owner–is the one accused and whose actions caused the seizure. The innocent owner can be without his car for months or years without a means to contest the seizure or even to post a bond to obtain its release."

Illinois officials disagree with the appeals court’s decision, so the case will now be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is expected in the Spring.

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