IJ Class Action Challenges Indiana’s For-Profit Civil Forfeiture Prosecutions
As Liberty & Law readers well know, IJ has tangled with Indiana over civil forfeiture before. IJ recently ended the state’s attempt to forfeit Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover, which the Indiana Supreme Court described as “reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick.” A unique feature of Indiana’s civil forfeiture law might explain that saga: private, for-profit prosecutors. In Indiana, county prosecutors can retain private lawyers on a contingency-fee basis to pursue civil forfeiture prosecutions. The scheme has been described as an “institutionalized bounty hunter system” and a “scandal.”
It’s not only a scandal, it’s unconstitutional. The contingency fee creates an unmistakable profit incentive: Forfeit nothing, recover nothing and maybe even lose money prosecuting the case; forfeit a little, recover a little; forfeit more, recover more. That runs afoul of the due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, which require prosecutors to pursue justice, not money. To eliminate these for-profit civil forfeitures, IJ partnered with native Hoosier Amya Sparger-Withers—herself a victim of the profit-fueled system—and filed a federal class action lawsuit this past November.
Amya won a significant victory less than a week into the case. As the government so often does when citizens team up with IJ to resist civil forfeiture, Indiana hastily dropped its case against Amya and returned her property. It almost certainly did so to try to get rid of her federal class action; in fact, Indiana asked the federal court shortly thereafter to dismiss the suit. The state said nothing about the hundreds (and maybe thousands) of other proposed class members whose constitutional rights are still being violated every day. Rather than respond to these allegations, Indiana has effectively put up its hands and declared, “Nothing to see here!”
IJ, Amya, and Liberty & Law readers know there actually is a lot to see, and to fix, when it comes to Indiana’s civil forfeitures. And so Amya and IJ will keep fighting to end Indiana’s financially driven civil forfeiture prosecutions once and for all.
Bob Belden is an IJ attorney.
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