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Car Seizures at Center of Due Process Case Before Supreme Court

The justices will decide how quickly authorities must provide civil asset forfeiture hearings after people’s property is seized.

By Susan Frederick  |  November 15, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case involving people whose cars were seized after they lent them to others who used them for drug trafficking.

In the case of Culley v. Marshall, the justices will decide whether the state of Alabama deprived two women of their property in violation of their due process rights. The Constitution’s due process clause says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This generally means that a hearing is required before the government can seize, retain and forfeit property.

Halima Culley and Lena Sutton each lent their cars to people who used them to traffic illegal drugs. The police stopped both cars, found the drugs, arrested the drivers and seized the cars pursuant to Alabama’s forfeiture laws. The state returned the cars to the women a year later. The women subsequently filed suit in federal court alleging that as “innocent owners,” they did not receive a prompt hearing after their cars were seized in violation of their due process rights. Sutton claims she could not find work and fell behind on her bills because she did not have a car.

Alabama alleges that Culley and Sutton are responsible for the delay because they did not avail themselves of several different state processes to expedite the return of their cars. Alabama further argues that because Culley and Sutton did not proactively assert their rights under Alabama law, they essentially “slept on their rights.”

The case now turns on which legal test the Supreme Court will use to determine whether individuals, such as Culley and Sutton, have the right to a hearing after their property is seized but before a final decision is rendered on the disposition of that property.

Culley and Sutton urge the court to use the three-part balancing test outlined in Mathews v. Eldridge when deciding whether a state or locality has violated someone’s due process requirements in administrative proceedings such as forfeiture cases. This test considers the “private interest that will be affected by the official action, the risk of erroneous deprivation of this interest through the procedures used and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards, and the government’s interest.” Culley and Sutton argue that pursuant to this balancing test, they were entitled to a retention hearing for the return of their cars.

Alabama argues that the correct legal test to apply in civil forfeiture cases is the speedy trial test found in Barker v. Wingo. If the court uses this test, it will balance the length and reason for the delay in proceedings against any harm to Culley and Sutton. The court will also consider when in the timeline of the underlying cases the women asserted their right to a speedy forfeiture proceeding.

Thirteen states filed as amici in support of Alabama. They argue that states craft civil forfeiture laws to deter crime and protect property rights and need flexibility in developing and implementing their unique forfeiture structures. The differences in state forfeiture processes exist so that each state can tailor them to their needs and priorities. The Supreme Court should not allow individuals seeking state reforms to forfeiture laws through the federal courts on a case-by-case basis because “experimenting with new processes and evaluating whether the reforms work is a job for the legislature, not the courts.”

If the court applies the Mathews test, the states argue, it will “invite undue interference with both considered legislative judgments and the careful balance that the Constitution strikes between liberty and order” (Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 443, 446; 1992). States, not federal courts, should regulate implementation of their own state laws.

Susan Frederick is NCSL’s senior federal affairs counsel.

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