On Tuesday morning, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled unanimously that civil-forfeiture defendants in the Hoosier State have the right to a trial by jury. In recent decades, prosecutors across Indiana had resisted efforts by property owners to have their civil-forfeiture cases heard by a jury of their peers.
Applying the Indiana Constitution, the state high court today set things straight, holding that property owners “in an action brought under Indiana’s civil forfeiture statute ha[ve] a constitutional right to trial by jury.” The court reasoned that “the historical record… strongly suggests that Indiana continued the common-law tradition of trial by jury in actions for in rem forfeiture of property.” And because Indiana’s system of civil forfeiture “is readily analogous to the traditional common-law forfeiture of property used in violation of the law,” Indiana’s constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial.
“Today’s decision vindicates a fundamental constitutional guarantee,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Sam Gedge, who argued the appeal before the Indiana Supreme Court. “The right to a trial by jury of our peers is core to our system of justice. And for centuries, courts across the nation have confirmed the obvious: when the government sues to forfeit your property, you’re entitled to make your case to a jury.”
The Institute for Justice is a public-interest law firm that litigates nationwide to vindicate individual liberties. IJ defends the rights of property owners in civil-forfeiture cases across the nation, including in nearly a half dozen cases in Indiana—from the landmark excessive-fines case Timbs v. Indiana to an ongoing class action challenging Indiana’s for-profit forfeiture prosecutors.