Access to Justice

RELEASE: In overbroad ruling, conservative majority restricts the rights of innocent car owners whose vehicles are seized by the government

WASHINGTON, DC – Following today’s decision at the Supreme Court in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which the Court was 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 Deputy Chief Counsel Brian Frazelle issued the following reaction:

While paying lip service to judicial restraint, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority repeatedly fails to exercise it. The Court agreed to review a very narrow and technical question in Culley v. Marshall: which of two tests under the Due Process Clause should be used to evaluate an innocent vehicle owner’s request for a preliminary hearing when the government seizes his or her vehicle and attempts to claim it through civil forfeiture.

Instead of sticking to that narrow question, the six-Justice conservative supermajority decided that owners are never entitled to a preliminary hearing when their vehicles are seized, but must instead wait until the forfeiture proceeding to assert their rights—and be deprived of their vehicles in the meantime, often at the expense of their ability to travel to jobs and medical appointments and to fulfill other essential needs.

The majority based this conclusion on a tenuous, overbroad reading of earlier forfeiture cases that did not involve innocent owners seeking preliminary hearings, and thus did not grapple with the due process issues at stake here.

There are only two silver linings: first, the Court reiterated that there are some limits on how long the government may hold vehicles before initiating a forfeiture proceeding, and second, two Justices in the majority wrote separately to highlight that other aspects of modern civil forfeiture may violate due process—leaving some hope that future cases could help rein in abuses.



Case page in Culley v. Marshall:


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