Dan King
Dan King · June 29, 2023

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, two victims of civil forfeiture joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file an amicus brief in a case before the United States Supreme Court, urging the court to rule that forfeiture victims have a right to a prompt hearing after police seize their property. Civil forfeiture is the system through which law enforcement can take an individual’s property without ever charging them with a crime. 

“Delay is one of the government’s most potent weapons in civil forfeiture cases,” said IJ Attorney Rob Johnson, the author of the brief, “Forced to wait months or even years for a hearing, many property owners simply give up, and others agree to unfair settlements where they give up half or more of their property just to get the remainder back. We’re urging the Supreme Court to make clear those kinds of tactics violate due process. Victims of civil forfeiture are entitled to have their cases heard in a timely manner.”   

On April 17, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Culley v. Marshall, which challenges the constitutionality of Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws on the grounds that they do not provide for a prompt post-seizure hearing. The plaintiffs, Halima Culley and Lena Sutton, each had their vehicles seized for alleged drug crimes committed by their son and roommate, respectively. Neither was given a prompt post-seizure hearing.  

IJ’s brief highlights the devastating impact these delays can have on innocent people by showcasing the stories of IJ clients Gerardo Serrano and Stephanie Wilson, both of whom have signed onto the brief. 

In 2015, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized Gerardo’s truck at the border crossing in Eagle Pass, Texas, simply because the agents found five low-caliber bullets (and no gun to fire them with) in his glove box. When Gerardo asked for a court hearing, he was required to send CBP a check for $3,800, which they quickly deposited. But for more than two years, he was denied a hearing in front of a judge. Eventually, after IJ and Gerardo sued, CBP returned his truck. But for those two years, Gerardo was forced to make monthly car payments of $672 for a car he could not drive, spent more than $1,000 to keep the vehicle registered, and spent thousands of dollars on rental cars to get around. 

“I signed onto this brief because I know firsthand how important a prompt hearing is,” Gerardo said. “I don’t want anyone else to have to wait years and waste thousands of dollars just to get back something that never should’ve been taken from them in the first place.” 

Stephanie’s case is similar to Gerardo’s. In 2019, police in Wayne County, Michigan, seized her car without any evidence she had done anything wrong, and kept the vehicle for several months. In April 2021, a judge ruled that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and that her car must immediately be returned. However, when Stephanie showed up at the tow yard, the private company—acting on instruction from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office—refused to turn the vehicle over to its rightful owner. After that ordeal, IJ filed a motion to enforce the judge’s order. Finally, after nearly two full years, Stephanie’s car was returned to her. 

“I never did anything wrong, but had to sit by while my car sat in a locked lot for months,” said Stephanie. “I don’t want to see these types of unfair delays happen to anybody else.”