Civil Asset Forfeiture

Police Seized Almost $10,000 From Him. A Court Ruled He Had No Right to an Attorney.

Terry Abbott couldn't afford representation, because the state took the cash he'd use to pay for it.


In April 2015, police in Indiana seized almost $10,000 from Terry Abbott after he was arrested for selling drugs to a confidential informant.

Cops used a process known as civil forfeiture, allowing them to proceed with pocketing those funds prior to securing a criminal conviction. Naturally, Abbott attempted to challenge that action in court. But he lost his attorney—as the money he would use to pay for that counsel had been taken by the state.

So for years he had to represent himself.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday decided that's in keeping with the law—ruling that defendants have no right to use their seized funds to finance legal representation.

"We do not find the legislature intended this language to give the court equitable authority to order the seized property released to the defendant to defend the forfeiture action," wrote Justice Steven H. David, noting that the court's hands were tied by the relevant statute on the books.

Central to the American criminal justice system is that every defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But civil forfeiture isn't a criminal action; it's a civil one, occurring in civil court, where defendants are not necessarily entitled to a lawyer. Only in certain extraordinary circumstances, the court ruled, is the state required to provide one.

Abbott didn't qualify. This means that, in cases like his, the government is able to put defendants in a chokehold by seizing the very assets that they would use to defend themselves against such a seizure. Fighting to get your cash back is a bit difficult when the government has taken all of your cash.

"One of the many pernicious things about civil forfeiture nationwide is that the government has the power to seize your cash, and your cars, and your home, but unlike in a criminal case, you don't have a right to appoint counsel," says Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice and a lawyer for Abbott. "So if you want to defend your cash, or your car, or your homes in a civil forfeiture action, you typically just have to pay for a lawyer yourself, and that's not surprisingly economically infeasible for lots of people who are targeted in civil forfeiture actions."

It is not an exaggeration to say that the state or the federal government can try to take you for nearly all you're worth in the process. People in Indiana may know that quite well. The state was the setting for one of the most high-profile forfeiture showdowns after Indiana took possession of Tyson Timbs' new Land Rover in 2013 following his arrest for a drug crime, setting in motion an almost decade-long legal circus between Timbs and the government. State officials were eventually required to return the vehicle in 2020. But prosecutors continued to fight, arguing before the Indiana Supreme Court in 2021 that there should be no proportionality—no limit—on what the government can seize in cases like Timbs'. (The state's highest court rejected that winning argument last summer.)

Yet civil forfeiture continues apace and is a source of police funding, with local and state departments able to keep the vast majority of the funds they take. Just last year, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to allow cops to seize assets from people suspected of committing "unlawful assembly," a charge so vague that whether or not someone committed it is somewhat in the eye of the beholder—who, in this case, would be an arresting officer.

Civil forfeiture is also used at the federal level, and it presents many of the same problems. In May 2020, the FBI seized almost $1 million from Carl Nelson after informing him he was under investigation for allegedly committing fraud. Two years later, no criminal charges have been filed, and the government returned some of the cash. Not unlike Abbott, however, the government's action made it a Herculean task for Nelson to push back, as he had been temporarily bankrupted. "If you can't afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself, it becomes complicated," Amy Nelson, his wife, told me in February.

As for the Hoosier state? "The ball is very much in the Indiana Legislature's court," says Gedge.

NEXT: Postal Inspectors Have Been Illegally Spying on Americans

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  1. Our society is doomed.

    1. What do you expect from a third world country?

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    2. Cuz Billy B writes the same piece over and over again about a 7-year-old case citing his own opinions? LOL! In other "der turruble gomint" news, Lyle and Erik Menendez who killed their parents are still denied access to their parents' estate to use in their own defense. And all over this country, people who rob stores and banks aren't allowed to use the money found on them to defend themselves either.

      The bigger questions are, does Billy B actually have a life? And does Reason actually pay him to recycle twaddle about the same damn 3 cases, month after month?

      1. I'm not sure I agree with your examples. But even if I did there is a clear difference in that the government is using civil actions to avoid their Constitutional responsibilities to provide defense counsel.

      2. The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday decided that's in keeping with the law—ruling that defendants have no right to use their seized funds to finance legal representation.

        Dearest Dumbfuck,

        Try having someone read the article to you before thinking you have something worthwhile to say next time.

    3. Is? It was doomed long ago - we are now in the “blood of patriots and tyrants” phase.

      When I was a kid I used to think “why would anyone stay in nazi Germany - the writing was on the wall for a decade?”

      And here we are.

  2. I still can't figure out how they get around takings and due process. It is bizarre.

    But, we live in a world where our government just steals stuff from foreign leaders and businessmen and calls it "sanctions". And in that same world, other countries retaliate by simply stealing the property of companies from other countries. It really is a throwback to kings and serfs.

  3. So, the cops seized ten thousand in 2015. How much is that in 2022 dollars? Enough to warrant discussion?

  4. Actually this guy was both charged and convicted. As much as I loath our war on drugs I don't actually have a problem with the taking of assets deemed to be gained through illegal activity. Asset forfeiture without charges even being brought is the issue Reason should be fighting. I don't think many people actually will support giving criminals back their ill gotten gains, even if it's connected to crimes that many think should not be crimes.

    1. The problem Becomes worse when the the civil asset forfeiture police take your cash or property based only on suspicion and there are plenty of examples of just that. In fact, far too many examples.
      It is outright theft without due process.
      All cops are thugs.

  5. So the ball is now in the court of the Indiana legislature? That herd of grandees ain't gonna do nuthin'.

  6. That's some catch, that Catch-22.

  7. The problem with that taking is its ex post facto. If he turned out to be innocent of the charges he is still outthat money

  8. This is the whole point of civil asset forfeiture. It was designed to prevent organized crime from using their presumed 'ill gotten gains' to fund high powered lawyers for their defense in criminal court. It only seems natural that it would be extended given congress's inability to write legislation that isn't sufficiently vague.


  10. Civil asset forfeiture has been a blessing to organized street gangs, otherwise known as police departments, everywhere. How else are they going to fund nice vacations to Hawaii or nice boats or cars or anything else on their measly $130,000 /year salary?
    If they can pull you over, rummage through your car and then demand a ransom to release you, then America is no longer a land of freedom. It is no better than some corrupt third world shit hole, where cops and judges take bribes without fear of punishment.
    Civil asset forfeiture is quite probably one of the worst of the abuses heaped upon the people, outside of the destruction of the currency.

  11. All Terry Abbott had to do was google "Indiana Pro Bono Layers":
    result: About 1,460,000 results (0.59 seconds)
    Pro Bono Legal Services.
    First hit:
    "Indiana Legal Services, Inc. (ILS) is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income residents throughout the state of Indiana."

  12. End qualified immunity NOW!

  13. Civil forfeiture in the "land of the free." What a joke.

  14. Same thing with Red Flag Laws. They call you crazy, take your guns and then assume you won’t be able to afford either the attorney or the expert witnesses to testify you aren’t a danger to yourself or others.

  15. When will our law makers do away with the travesty of Theft Under Color of Law, aka Asset Forfeiture or Civil Asset Forfeiture?

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