Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · April 17, 2023

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that it will consider Culley v. Attorney General of Alabama, a case concerning whether someone whose property is seized will receive an immediate probable-cause hearing, or must wait months or years before they have an opportunity to contest the seizure. Prompt post-seizure hearings are particularly important for innocent third-party property owners in civil forfeiture cases, who do not currently have any opportunity to show that they did not know their property—often a car—was being used for an illegal purpose.

“The government should not be able to take your car without providing you with a prompt opportunity to challenge the seizure,” said Dan Alban, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), the public interest law firm that has been leading efforts nationwide to end civil forfeiture. “In criminal cases, after the government arrests you, it must hold a probable cause hearing shortly after the arrest so that a judge can make a preliminary determination about whether the arrest was legitimate. The government should provide the same kind of prompt hearing after it takes your property.”

The two cases consolidated in Culley involved car owners whose cars were seized in Alabama, but who were not themselves at the scene of the seizure and were never charged with a crime. Both cases are on appeal from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the civil forfeiture proceeding itself provides sufficient due process to protect innocent owners, even if it might take years for them to get their property back.

In Serrano v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, IJ represented truck owner Gerardo Serrano, who had his Ford F-250 truck seized at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, in a case about whether due process requires a prompt initial hearing after the government seizes a vehicle through civil forfeiture so a court can decide whether there is justifiable grounds for the seizure. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. When it did so, IJ predicted: “This issue will continue knocking on the Supreme Court’s door.” Now that it has, IJ will join the fight to protect property rights in this important case.

Civil forfeiture is a fundamentally un-American concept that allows local, state, and federal law enforcement to seize and keep billions of dollars in cash, cars, homes, and other property without charging, let alone convicting anyone of a crime. Worse, law enforcement is incentivized to do this, as they generally keep the proceeds of the seizures for their benefit.

“The Institute for Justice is committed to fighting this pernicious practice in every forum,” said Scott Bullock, President and Chief Counsel for the Institute for Justice. “We will support the property owners in Culley and others who are wronged by civil forfeiture until this inherently abusive process is brought to an end.”