Access to Justice

Culley v. Marshall

In Culley v. Marshall, the Supreme Court is considering how to resolve claims that a state or local government must provide a prompt hearing to the owner of a vehicle that the government has seized in anticipation of bringing a civil forfeiture action.

Case Summary

In 2019, law enforcement officers seized the vehicles of Halima Culley and Lena Sutton because other people who were borrowing those vehicles allegedly possessed drugs while driving them. Although neither woman was present at the time of the alleged offenses, the state refused to return the vehicles because it wanted to take ownership of them through civil forfeiture proceedings, which can last more than a year. Culley and Sutton both filed suit, arguing that the state’s failure to provide them a prompt hearing in which they could challenge the retention of their vehicles during the forfeiture proceedings violated their due process rights.

After these claims were dismissed by a district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the cases. In June 2023, CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Culley and Sutton.

According to Culley and Sutton, the retention of their vehicles without a prompt hearing violates their right to “procedural due process,” a doctrine that requires the government to follow certain steps before depriving persons of their life, liberty, or property. But in deciding these cases, the lower courts did not use the standard framework for procedural due process claims that the Supreme Court outlined in Mathews v. Eldridge. Instead, they used a different framework, originally developed in Barker v. Wingo to implement the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause. Our brief shows why that approach is wrong.

We first demonstrate that the Mathews framework reflects the judiciary’s effort to secure the fairness and reliability that due process demands. As we explain, due process has always been understood as a vague but essential safeguard requiring gradual elucidation by the courts. And the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Due Process Clauses in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments has long emphasized the role of due process in preventing arbitrary infringement of individual rights. According to the Court, the essence of due process is a requirement of basic procedural fairness, an opportunity to ensure accuracy in decision-making through participation by those whose interests are in jeopardy. To determine what procedures are required in a given context, courts must take into account the interests at stake and the risk of error without additional protections. Drawing on this precedent, the Mathews decision organized these considerations into a focused framework that has become the “general approach” for evaluating due process claims.

We next explain why the Mathews due process framework, not the Barker speedy trial framework, should be used to resolve cases like this one. While the Mathews framework was developed to implement the guarantees of due process, the Barker test was designed to enforce a different constitutional provision that addresses entirely different concerns. The Barker test is therefore unsuited for resolving due process questions. In contrast, the Mathews framework accounts for the nature of the interests at stake, addresses the fairness and reliability required by due process, and avoids the need for ad hoc, fact-specific resolution of every dispute, thereby promoting clarity and predictability.

In short, the Mathews framework is the right choice to resolve cases like this one, and the Eleventh Circuit’s decision should be reversed so that Culley and Sutton can have their claims resolved under the proper standard.

Case Timeline

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