Indiana Jury Trials

The right to a trial by jury is fundamental to our system of justice. Particularly when the government is trying to confiscate property, the jury (as one court has put it) “stands as a shield between the individual and the State.” Most states have constitutional provisions securing the right to jury trials in civil cases. The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution embodies a similar protection for lawsuits in federal court. And across the nation—from California to Montana to South Dakota to Illinois to Maine to Florida—courts have held that these provisions secure a right to trial by jury in civil-forfeiture cases. 

In September 2022, the Indiana Court of Appeals charted a different path. Article 1, Section 20, of the Indiana Constitution provides that “[i]n all civil cases, the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” Yet the Indiana Court of Appeals held that this protection doesn’t apply when the government brings civil-forfeiture actions. “[T]he State’s civil forfeiture complaints,” the court held, “are outside of Article 1, Section 20, and are instead equitable claims to be tried by the court.”

In this, the Indiana court erred badly, depriving individuals statewide of a vital constitutional protection in the process. In November 2022, the Institute for Justice petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to take the case and confirm what should already be obvious: when the government sues to forfeit your property, you’re entitled to make your case to a jury.

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