J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 10, 2016

Arlington, Va.—The Indiana Constitution clearly states that “all forfeitures” must go to support the state’s schools, but that has not stopped police and prosecutors in Indianapolis from keeping 100 percent of civil forfeiture proceeds for themselves. This multi million-dollar constitutional violation has been going on for years, fueling aggressive forfeiture practices in Indiana’s capital city. Now, a lawsuit filed today by a group of forfeiture victims and concerned Hoosier families seeks to put an end to policing for profit in Indianapolis.

“This case shows the lengths to which police and prosecutors will go when they have a direct financial stake in the laws that they enforce,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Sam Gedge, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The profit incentive created by civil forfeiture is so strong, officials charged with upholding the law are now the ones breaking it.”

For the past 165 years, the Indiana Constitution has mandated that “all forfeitures” be committed to the common school fund, which supports public and charter schools. But even though the state constitution could not be clearer, Indianapolis has not sent a penny of civil-forfeiture money to the school fund since before many current students were born. In 2014 alone, Indianapolis law enforcement forfeited $1.4 million worth of property and siphoned it into law-enforcement coffers.

This is not the first time policing for profit has been questioned 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.” And that same year, then-Governor Mitch Daniels remarked that permitting law enforcement to divert forfeiture proceeds was “unwarranted as policy and constitutionally unacceptable.”

Nearly five years later, though, policing for profit continues in Indianapolis. Police and prosecutors justify the practice by saying that Indiana law allows them to use forfeiture money to cover their expenses. But they are keeping far more than their expenses; they are keeping everything. In fact, Indy’s police and prosecutors have cut internal deals to parcel out 100 percent of civil forfeiture money among themselves. This leads to cases where, for example, the local prosecutor’s office pockets $12,000, $13,500 even $17,000 in costs when the other side does not even show up in court. As a result, police and prosecutors are keeping 100 percent of forfeiture money, with zero percent going to schools. Under the Indiana Constitution, the opposite is supposed to be true: Schools should be getting 100 percent of forfeiture money.

The experience of Jack and Jeana Horner—two plaintiffs in the lawsuit—demonstrates the human cost of Indianapolis’ profit-fueled forfeiture program. In 2013, the Horners lent two of their vehicles to Jeana’s adult son (Jack’s stepson) to help him get back on his feet while he was participating in a work-release program. While driving one of the vehicles within Marion County limits, their son was pulled over and arrested. Police seized that vehicle and then drove to another location to seize the Horners’ other vehicle.

Even though Jeana and Jack had nothing to do with their son’s misbehavior, it still took them more than nine months to get their cars back. Nearly a year after the vehicles were seized—and after Jack, who is critically ill, had already bought a replacement car—a court ordered the government to return the Horners’ property.

“Even though we didn’t do anything wrong, we spent more than nine months fighting the government’s civil forfeiture of our cars,” said Jeana Horner, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “No one should lose his or her property without being convicted of a crime. Hopefully this lawsuit will mean fewer Indianians will have to go through the pain and frustration we endured.”

“As Jeana and Jack’s story shows, civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation,” said IJ Attorney Wesley Hottot, who also represents the plaintiffs. “Police and prosecutors are not allowed to profit from what they forfeit. That only creates a dangerous incentive to seize people’s property. And in Indiana, policing for profit isn’t just wrong; it’s unconstitutional.”