Arizona Forfeiture Victims Score Win At Federal Appeals Court

Institute for Justice · October 5, 2021

PHOENIX–Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Terry and Ria Platt can continue to litigate the unconstitutional forfeiture of their car. The federal appellate court ruling reinstates the Platts’ long-running constitutional challenge against forfeiture abuse in Arizona, in which they are represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

The Platts, an elderly couple from eastern Washington, have been fighting abusive forfeiture in Arizona for more than five years. In the spring of 2016, Arizona law enforcement officials seized the Platts’ car from their son. Terry and Ria were never charged with, much less convicted of, any crime. Neither was their son. But Arizona’s forfeiture system at the time allowed law enforcement agencies to take and keep the Platts’ car for their own profit whether or not they had committed a crime.

When the Platts tried to get their car back, the government denied them their day in court. Like most people facing forfeiture, the Platts didn’t have a lawyer. So they filled out the right forms and sent them in on time. But using a loophole in Arizona’s “uncontested” forfeiture system, the prosecutor told the Court the Platts’ forms were wrong and asked the court to forfeit the Platts’ car to his office because of the alleged errors—without even showing the Platts’ forms to the court. The prosecutor’s move meant the Platts were excluded from any judicial proceedings, a situation the Arizona Supreme Court has recognized “virtually assures” forfeiture because no one can challenge the government.

After stonewalling the Platts for months, the government changed its tune once the Platts found pro bono help from IJ. IJ contested the forfeiture and sued law enforcement officials and agencies for violating the Platts’ constitutional rights. Only then did the government give the car back, but still claimed it had done nothing wrong.

“This long-running case shows how complicated it can be to sue the government for violating your constitutional rights,” explained Paul Avelar, Managing Attorney of IJ’s Arizona Office. “But it also shows how much Arizona has changed its forfeiture laws for the better since the Platts were first victimized.”

In 2017, amid public outrage over the Platts’ case and other abuses, Arizona reformed its laws to protect innocent owners and require more government transparency. And in 2020, Arizona reformed its forfeiture laws again by requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture, strengthening procedural protections, and abolishing Arizona’s “uncontested forfeiture” system. Unfortunately, however, Arizona law still awards law enforcement up to 100% of forfeiture proceeds.

“After five years, the Platts can finally have their day in court,” said IJ Attorney Keith Diggs. “Policing for profit violates due process, and we will vindicate the Platts’ rights against the abuse that happened here.”

“What happened to us shouldn’t happen to any American,” said Terry Platt. “We are glad that our case can move forward and that our story has prompted Arizona to change its unconstitutional laws.”