Arlington, Va.—Yesterday, the Institute for Justice (IJ), working on behalf of three Indiana couples, asked the Indiana Supreme Court to immediately review a recent trial-court ruling that approved the state’s profit-driven property forfeiture system.
The law is plain as day. Article 8 of the Indiana Constitution says that “all forfeitures” must go to support schools, but that has not stopped police and prosecutors in Indianapolis from keeping millions of dollars in civil-forfeiture revenue for themselves. This multimillion-dollar constitutional violation has been going on for years, fueling aggressive civil-forfeiture practices in Indiana’s capital city.
Since 2016, IJ and a group of Indiana taxpayers have been suing to stop this unconstitutional system. But last month, Judge Thomas J. Carroll of the Marion Superior Court ruled that police and prosecutors can keep civil-forfeiture revenue for themselves, reasoning that “all forfeitures” does not include civil forfeitures. Now, the taxpayers and IJ are asking the Indiana Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the trial court.
“The Indiana Constitution says ‘all forfeitures’ must go to support schools, not police and prosecutors,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney at IJ, which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The constitution means what it says. By ratifying a system that gives law enforcement a direct financial stake in the laws they enforce, the trial court’s decision threatens everyone’s property rights. We look forward to the Indiana Supreme Court’s correcting that ruling.”
This is not the first time that policing for profit has come under scrutiny in Indiana. In 2011, a unanimous Indiana Supreme Court noted that the constitutionality of even “limited diversion” of forfeitures from the school fund remained “an unresolved question.” The same year, Governor Mitch Daniels remarked that allowing law enforcement to divert forfeiture revenue from schools is “unwarranted as policy and constitutionally unacceptable.”
Yet overreaching civil forfeitures are still occurring across the state. In one case, Indianapolis prosecutors sued to forfeit a teenager’s car because it contained “a large quantity of Gatorade bottles and assorted snacks and candies” stolen from a playground concession stand. In other cases—including that of Jeana and Jack Horner, two plaintiffs in the case—the property owners are entirely innocent. Many counties in Indiana even outsource civil-forfeiture cases to private lawyers—who get a cut of the property they manage to forfeit.
“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation,” said IJ Attorney Wesley Hottot, who also represents the taxpayers. “Because civil forfeiture is a dangerous tool, the Indiana Constitution does not allow police and prosecutors to profit from it. Schools, not cops, are supposed to be the beneficiaries of ‘all forfeitures which may accrue.’ This case is about enforcing that clear constitutional command.”
A decision on the motion to transfer is expected sometime this summer.