Access to Justice

RELEASE: Hanging in the Balance at Today’s Supreme Court Oral Argument: Safeguards Against the Profound Abuses of Civil Forfeiture

WASHINGTON, DC – Following oral argument at the Supreme Court this morning in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which the 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, Constitutional Accountability Center Senior Appellate Counsel Brian Frazelle issued the following reaction:

Although the question in Culley may sound narrow, what’s at stake is whether the Constitution offers any real protection against a notorious injustice: the practice of state and local governments seizing vehicles from people who have not been convicted of any crime, and holding those vehicles for months or even years while trying to obtain ownership of them through civil forfeiture proceedings. As noted this morning by Justices across the ideological spectrum, the forfeiture system has led to profound reported abuses in which innocent vehicle owners are deprived for long periods of the means of transportation they need for jobs, medical appointments, and other essentials.

As we discussed in our amicus brief supporting the vehicles’ owners, which Justice Amy Coney Barrett mentioned during today’s argument, the Constitution provides a solution: its guarantee of due process has always been understood to demand a baseline level of fairness and reliability in legal proceedings in order to prevent arbitrary deprivations of liberty or property. And over the centuries, the judiciary has developed a framework, now known as the Mathews test, to implement that vital guarantee.

The Court should affirm that the Mathews test governs cases in which innocent owners seek to retain the use of their vehicles until the government proves that those vehicles are subject to forfeiture. But above all, the Court should ensure that its decision here does not foreclose due process challenges to other abuses of modern civil forfeiture.

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Resources:

Case page in Culley v. Marshall: https://www.theusconstitution.org/litigation/culley-v-marshall/

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Constitutional Accountability Center is a nonpartisan think tank and public interest law firm dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text, history, and values. Visit CAC’s website at www.theusconstitution.org.

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