Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil Forfeiture Defendants Have the Right to a Jury Trial, Says the Indiana Supreme Court

That prosecutors in the Hoosier State successfully denied people this due process is a reflection of how abusive civil forfeiture can be.


Civil forfeiture defendants in Indiana have the right to a jury trial, the state's Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week, bolstering basic due process protections for those who have assets seized by law enforcement. 

Before the court was the case of Alucious Kizer, from whom police seized $2,435 in cash after a traffic stop where they found drugs in his vehicle. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take people's assets if the government suspects them of criminal activity. Kizer moved to challenge his forfeiture at trial, which the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected, ruling that such defendants "are not entitled to trial by jury." 

"The State insists that Kizer has no right to a jury trial because civil forfeitures pursuant to Indiana's drug forfeiture laws are a special statutory procedure intended exclusively for trial by the court," Justice Christopher M. Goff of the Indiana Supreme Court summarized in an opinion published October 31. "Kizer disagrees, arguing that the State's theory would effectively deprive Hoosiers of a jury trial when filing suit under any modern statutory scheme."

The state's highest court ruled in favor of Kizer. "The historical record—consisting of statutes and judicial decisions reflecting contemporary practice—strongly suggests that Indiana continued the common-law tradition of trial by jury in actions for the forfeiture of property," wrote Goff. The seizure of assets suspected to be used in the commission of a crime, he added, is "an essentially legal action that triggers the right" to a jury trial. 

That prosecutors in Indiana have successfully denied civil forfeiture defendants this due process, and were close to making it official in the courts, is a reflection of how abusive the practice can be. It's also unsurprising and shows how governments across the U.S. can deter defendants from challenging such seizures, even when those people haven't been charged with a crime.

On October 30, the day before the Indiana Supreme Court released its decision pertaining to Kizer's appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court convened to consider a similar issue. Before the justices was Culley v. Marshall, a case surrounding two women whose cars were seized by police in Alabama. Law enforcement took possession of Halima Culley's vehicle after pulling over her son and arresting him for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia; police seized Lena Sutton's car after her friend, who had borrowed her vehicle, was pulled over and taken into custody for possession of methamphetamine.

Neither woman was in their car at the time, and neither was suspected of a crime. That didn't matter. Much time would pass before things would look up for them: Though both Culley and Sutton ultimately got their vehicles back, it took 20 months and 14 months, respectively, before the courts ruled in their favor—a delay that came because neither received a prompt post-seizure hearing. The dearth of due process is a feature, not a bug, of civil forfeiture, as it discourages many defendants from continuing to fight for their property. The Supreme Court will soon decide if depriving defendants of a hearing in a timely manner violates the Constitution.

As for Kizer, he will finally get a jury trial to determine if the $2,435 in cash recovered during his arrest should be forfeited or returned to him.

"The right to a trial by jury of our peers is core to our system of justice," said Sam Gedge, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, in a statement after the Indiana Supreme Court's decision was published. "For centuries, courts across the nation have confirmed the obvious: when the government sues to forfeit your property, you're entitled to make your case to a jury."