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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides civil forfeiture case

In Martin Serrano v. State of Indiana and the City of Fort Wayne, an 8-page, 5-0 opinion, the Court reverses a trial court decision. Chief Justice Shepard writes:

Civil forfeiture is a device, a legal fiction, authorizing legal action against inanimate objects for participation in alleged criminal activity, regardless of whether the property owner is proven guilty of a crime—or even charged with a crime. Appellant Martin Serrano lost his truck in a forfeiture action based on the presence of cocaine residue found in the carpet of the vehicle and on a box of $500 in quarters. The Court of Appeals was correct to reverse the forfeiture because the State failed to prove any substantial connection, any nexus, that the truck bore to commission of a crime. * * *

Serrano‘s appeal has challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, contending the State failed to prove that the presence of cocaine in his truck was anything more than incidental or fortuitous. A divided Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed, concluding the State failed to demonstrate a nexus between Serrano‘s possession of cocaine residue and the use of his truck. Serrano v. State, No. 02A3-0908-CV-362, (Ind. Ct. App. Jun 28, 2010). We grant transfer to confirm the rationale of the Court of Appeals in reversing the trial court.

In rem forfeiture is an ancient concept under which courts obtained jurisdiction over property when it was virtually impossible to seek justice against property owners guilty of violating maritime law because they were overseas. Civil forfeiture traces to ancient Roman and medieval English law; both made objects used to violate the law subject to forfeiture to the sovereign. Civil forfeiture is no longer tethered to difficulties in obtaining personal jurisdiction over an individual. It now serves as "one of the most potent weapons in the judicial armamentarium." Civil forfeiture is a leading method for imposing economic sanctions against narcotics traffickers. [ILB: cites deleted]

Today, all states have statutory provisions for some form of asset forfeiture, and there are more than four hundred federal forfeiture statutes relating to various federal crimes. Marian R. Williams, Jefferson E. Holcomb, Tomislav V. Kovandzic & Scott Bullock, Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 11 (2010). An important feature of many of these statutes is characterization of the process as civil forfeiture under which (by contrast to criminal forfeiture) a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged—to lose permanently their cash, car, home or other property. The relative ease of effecting such forfeiture and the disposition of the assets have become a matter of public note.[1] * * *

[ILB: In its discussion of the origin of Indiana‘s system for civil forfeitures, the Court writes that "At the core of the financing scheme for this objective was creation of the Common School Fund, a 'perpetual' depository for 'support of Common Schools, and no other purpose.' Ind. Const. art. 8, § 3." Footnte 3 on page 4 cites IC 34-6-2-73 and notes: "Whether this limited diversion, calculating actual expenses on a case-by-case basis, is consonant with the constitutional command that 'all forfeitures' be deposited in the Common School Fund is an unresolved question."]

[T]he State‘s evidence does not compel a conclusion that the presence of cocaine was anything more than "incidental or fortuitous." Katner, 655 N.E.2d at 348–49. The State presented no evidence or link to any drug transactions or trade other than the initial information from an anonymous informant that the grocery store was receiving large shipments of drugs. Serrano admitted he was a cocaine user, and without expounding, it seems apparent that there are numerous ways that cocaine residue may have made its way into the truck that do not involve the use of his vehicle in furthering the possession of cocaine.

The judgment of the trial court is reversed.
[1] Heather Gillers, Mark Alesia & Tim Evans, Cashing in on Crime, Indianapolis Star, Nov. 14, 2010, at A1.

ILB: At least two items of note right now:

(1) SB 215, this session's forfeiture bill, is currently in conference committee. One might read today's opinion, footnote 3, to raise the question of whether any diversion of forfeiture funds from the Common School Fund is constitutional.

(2) It is certainly noteworthy that the Court of Appeals classified this as a NFP opinion.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 27, 2011 12:52 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions