In October 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Alvarez v. Smith. The plaintiffs in Alvarez are Chicago residents whose cars and money were taken by the Chicago Police Department. While being innocent of any wrongdoing, the plaintiffs have gone for months, and in some cases years, without any way to get their property back. This delay has occurred because Illinois law does not provide for a preliminary hearing where the government has to prove that it had the right to take the property in the first place.
The Institute for Justice, which has filed a friend of the court brief in support of the plaintiffs, believes that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest dangers to private-property rights in the nation today. Recent changes in the law of civil forfeiture, which let law enforcement keep the lion’s share of any forfeited assets, have distorted how police and prosecutors do their jobs. Those changes have also led to horrific abuses, where law enforcement has taken ordinary peoples’ property without any suspicion that any laws have been broken.
This runaway behavior by law enforcement is inconsistent with the respect the Constitution has for private property. IJ calls for the Court to check executive overreaching, and protect individuals’ private-property rights, by holding that the Constitution requires law enforcement to justify its actions as a prompt hearing before a neutral court.