Indiana Should Stop Redacting Information About Civil Forfeiture Cases, New IJ Brief Argues 

Dan King
Dan King · November 21, 2022

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in the Lake County, Indiana, Superior Court calling for more transparency in how the state handles civil forfeiture cases. The brief argues that the state’s redacting basic information on documents in civil forfeiture cases likely violates Indiana open records laws. 

Civil forfeiture is the process through which police can seize money or property from someone without ever charging them with—much less convicting them of—a crime. In recent months, state prosecutors have begun redacting basic information in civil forfeiture cases, raising concerns about transparency in a state civil forfeiture system that has been rife with abuse. Indiana’s civil forfeiture system is unique in that it allows private attorneys to prosecute civil forfeiture cases and provides a personal profit incentive to forfeit as much property as possible.  

“Indiana’s civil forfeiture regime is already one of the most abusive in the country. Keeping basic details from these cases secret, making it more difficult for the public to scrutinize that regime, raises even more concerns,” said IJ Attorney Mike Greenberg. 

The Indiana Supreme Court has strict rules that require a “presumption of openness” when it comes to court documents. In order to keep information secret, a party must prove that: 

  1. Redacting information will substantially serve the public interest, 
  1. Access to the court record will create a significant risk of substantial harm to a member of the public, or 
  1. Keeping the documents public would have a substantial prejudicial effect to ongoing proceedings in the case.  

The Indiana Legislature has enacted a mandate that prosecutor’s offices report data about every forfeiture action they prosecute. But much of the information that prosecutors have started redacting are details the Legislature has specifically required to be reported. 

“Prosecutors cannot choose to redact important information in civil forfeiture cases simply because they want to or because they think the information would make the prosecution look bad,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller. “If the state wants to continue sealing information about civil forfeiture cases, it needs to prove that it is meeting the high standards laid out in Indiana’s public records laws.” 

IJ is leading the charge in the fight against civil forfeiture abuse by filing lawsuits, including a class action suit against Indiana’s contingency fee civil forfeiture system, one on behalf of a Marine veteran who had his life savings seized without ever being charged, and one on behalf of a New York woman who had the money she was saving for a food truck seized without being charged. Additionally, IJ fights for open, transparent government. In Pennsylvania, IJ won a court battle against a district attorney who was seeking to shield civil-forfeiture records from disclosure under the state’s open records law. And following an IJ lawsuit, a Kentucky court ruled the Louisville Metro Council violated Kentucky’s Open Records Act when it intentionally withheld public records about the city’s regulations on food trucks.