A Washington couple who filed a civil rights lawsuit challenging Arizona's asset forfeiture laws will get their car back five months after it was seized by police, but they're not dropping their suit.
Last week, the Navajo County Attorney's Office filed a notice that it was dropping its effort to forfeit Terry and Maria Platts' 2012 Volkswagen, which was seized this spring while their son was driving it through Arizona, even though the Platts owned the car and were never charged with a crime.
Earlier this month, the Platts, represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that Arizona's asset forfeiture scheme is unconstitutional and that the seizure of their car was illegal.
Although the Platts' car is being returned, the Institute for Justice says their lawsuit will continue. "We're glad the Platts are getting their car back," Institute for Justice attorney Paul Avelar says. "But it does not change the fact that the Platts' rights have been violated or that their rights are still threatened in the future. The state can still pursue forfeiture against the car for up to seven years. We are still pressing this case forward to ensure the Platts get recognition and their rights are protected in the future, as well as the rights of all Arizonans."
As Reason reported, the Platts' son had borrowed the car and was driving back from Florida when he was pulled over by police for a window-tint violation. A subsequent search of the car found a small amount of marijuana and roughly $31,000 in cash. The son was arrested on money laundering charges, and the car and cash were seized under asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize property if there's probable cause that it is connected to illegal activity. However, no charges were ever filed against the Platts or their son.
Unable to afford a lawyer, the Platts filed a handwritten petition to the Navajo County Attorney's Office to get their car back, but the county attorney rejected their petition because the Platts had neglected to include four words, "under penalty of perjury," after their signatures. The county attorney filed a motion for an uncontested forfeiture of the car and never submitted the Platts' petition to the court.
In its latest filing, Navajo County Attorney's Office admits that it may have come to an "honest, mistaken conclusion" about the ownership of the car, mixing up the names of William Terance "Terry" Platt, the father, and Terance Shea Platt, his son. However, it still maintains that the seizure of the Platts' car was legal and justified under the circumstances, and that the Platts' petition was properly rejected. "A subsequent review of this matter and new information received since the time of the Platts' original, defective claim has caused the state to withdraw any claim in forfeiture to the 2012 VW Jetta," the county attorney wrote. The county attorney will still be pursuing forfeiture against the $31,000 in cash.
Avelar, however, finds the sudden discovery of "new information" less than convincing.
"They're sticking to their original position, insisting they did nothing wrong and they were perfectly justified to do this to the Platts and to anyone else in the future," Avelar says. "It's wrong, and we're going to put a stop to it. They were supposed to be investigating this for the last five months, but now, only a month after they get sued, they find new information?"