Due Process Case to be Decided on Procedural Grounds

Yesterday I went to the Supreme Court to watch the argument in Alvarez v. Smith, a case about civil forfeiture in which Cato filed an amicus brief

Civil forfeiture, the practice in which the police seize cars, money and other kinds of property that they say has some connection to crime, can raise various of legal and policy issues – from property rights to due process.  The question in Alvarez is the basic one of whether people seeking to get their property back are entitled to a prompt hearing before a judge. 

Illinois’ forfeiture law allows the State to wait as long as six months before having to prove the legitimacy of the seizure, which proceeding may then be delayed indefinitely for “good cause.” The six plaintiffs in Alvarez — three of whom were never charged with a crime — had their cars or money seized without a warrant for months or years without any judicial hearing, and sued the state and city authorities for violating their rights to due process. The Seventh Circuit found the Illinois law to be unconstitutional because of the delay between the seizure and the forfeiture proceeding and ruled that the plaintiffs must be afforded an informal hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to detain the property. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case at the request of the Cook County State Attorney.

Cato’s brief, joined by the Goldwater Institute and Reason Foundation, supports the individuals whose property was seized. Written by David B. Smith, who previously supervised all forfeiture litigation for the Department of Justice and is now the nation’s leading authority on civil and criminal forfeiture, the brief makes three arguments: 1) Because the Illinois law, unlike the federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, is stacked in favor of law enforcement agencies and lacks protections for innocent property owners, the Court should apply the due process analysis from Mathews v. Eldridge, rather than the more lenient test the State proposes; 2) What has become known as a Krimstock hearing has proven to be an effective and not overly burdensome means of preventing government delay and a meaningful opportunity to contest seizure; and 3) the State’s comparison of the time limits in CAFRA with those in its own law is misleading.

Unfortunately, though some justices appeared at argument inclined to rule that at least some prompt process was due – many other states require that the police quickly come before a judge to make a showing equivalent to the one necessary to get a search warrant – several seemed to want to avoid the due process question for another day because Alvarez was procedurally flawed, so to speak.  That is, Justice Scalia pointed that none of the six plaintiffs have a live claim any more – three have had their cars returned, two defaulted on their claims, and the State reached agreement with one – so the case was “moot.”  And Justice Stevens noted that the appellate court left it to the trial court to determine the details of the hearing to which the plaintiffs were entitled.  (Of course, if the latter “problem” ends up being the key to the case, the Court will simply dismiss the appeal and let the Seventh Circuit’s ruling stand, which is good news – but only for people in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.)

For more on the case, see George Mason law professor and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin’s oped, and his related blog post at the Volokh Conspiracy.