Supreme Court Rules Against Alabama Women Whose Cars Were Seized by Police

The Supreme Court on Thursday made it harder for people whose property had been seized by the police to argue for its swift return.

By a 6-to-3 vote, the court ruled against two Alabama women who had sought prompt hearings to recover cars they owned that had been taken by the police in connection with crimes committed by others.

“After a state seizes and seeks civil forfeiture of personal property, due process requires a timely forfeiture hearing but does not require a separate preliminary hearing,” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority had adopted a wooden approach to a pressing problem.

“The majority today holds that due process never requires the minimal check of a retention hearing before a police officer deprives an innocent owner of her car for months or years,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

Even as the court rejected the women’s argument that the Constitution requires streamlined procedures, five justices expressed grave misgivings about the practice of confiscating property said to have been used to commit crimes, known as civil asset forfeiture.

The court ruled in two cases. One of them started after Halima Culley bought a 2015 Nissan Altima for her son to use at college. He was pulled over by the police in 2019 and arrested when they found marijuana. They also seized Ms. Culley’s car.

That same year, Lena Sutton lent her 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to a friend. He was stopped for speeding and arrested after the police found methamphetamine. Ms. Sutton’s car was also seized.

Alabama law in effect at the time let so-called innocent owners reclaim seized property, and both women ultimately persuaded judges to return their cars. It took more than a year in each case, though there was some dispute about whether the women could have done more to hasten the process.

Ms. Culley and Ms. Sutton filed class actions in federal court saying that they should have been afforded prompt interim hearings to argue for the return of the vehicles while their cases moved forward. Lower courts ruled against them.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the Constitution’s due process clause does not require the preliminary hearing the women sought.

“Culley and Sutton’s argument for a separate preliminary hearing appears in many respects to be a backdoor argument for a more timely hearing so that a property owner with a good defense against forfeiture can recover her property more quickly,” he wrote. “But the court’s precedents already require a timely hearing.”

Alabama has since amended its forfeiture law to allow owners of seized property to request expedited hearings.

“Our decision today does not preclude those legislatively prescribed innovations,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “Rather, our decision simply addresses the base-line protection of the due process clause.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett joined the majority opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, said he agreed that no separate hearing was required. But he added that questions remained about whether “contemporary civil forfeiture practices can be squared with the Constitution’s promise of due process.”

Civil forfeiture, he wrote, “has become a booming business,” one in which federal forfeitures alone brought in $2.5 billion in 2018.

“In future cases, with the benefit of full briefing,” he wrote, “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” due process principles.

In her dissent in the case, Culley v. Marshall, No. 22-585, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, made similar points.

“Police agencies often have a financial incentive to seize as many cars as possible and try to retain them,” she wrote. “The forfeiture revenue is not a supplement; many police agencies in fact depend on cash flow from forfeitures for their budgets.”

“These cash incentives not only encourage counties to create labyrinthine processes for retrieving property in the hopes that innocent owners will abandon attempts at recovery,” Justice Sotomayor added, “they also influence which laws police enforce, how they enforce them and who they enforce them against.”

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