Thursday, December 10, 2009

Supreme Court passes on the opportunity to rule on Illinois vehicle forfeiture cases

This Chicago criminal lawyer is dismayed, but not surprised, by the SCOTUS ruling in Alverez v. Smith, a Chicago case. I've posted here, here, and here about vehicle forfeiture now comes news that the Supreme Court tosses a case that was routed in due process issues.

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday handed a victory to the Cook County State's Attorney and the Chicago Police Department when the justices unanimously dismissed as moot a challenge to Illinois' controversial forfeiture law.

The high court, in an 8-to-1 ruling, also ordered a federal appeals court decision in the case vacated.

The action came nearly two months after the high court heard oral argument in Alvarez v. Smith, a case that pitted innocent property owners against Chicago police and prosecutors who claimed a statutory right to take their time before returning cars and cash seized in criminal investigations.

Lawyers for the property owners argued that their clients had a due process right not to have to wait months or years for the government to return their property.

A panel of the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals had agreed with the innocent property owners and ordered implementation of a faster review process. It was that May 2008 Seventh Circuit ruling that the high court vacated on Tuesday.

When Chicago police seize a car or other property the seizure works as a de facto forfeiture, Mr. Peters says. "Most people just give up. They don't have their car and they can't make their car payments, so they just give up."

Alvarez v. Smith involved six individuals who filed lawsuits challenging Illinois' Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedures Act (DAFPA). Three claims sought return of seized cash, three others involved cars.

By the time the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case most of the cars and cash had already been returned or the cases were otherwise settled.

The last car was returned in July, three months before oral argument. It had been held in a police impoundment lot for three years. The Chevy Impala was only two years old when seized by police. It was five years old when returned to the owner.

Although the justices heard arguments on the merits of the case, they also asked the lawyers why the case shouldn't be dismissed as moot since all the property had been returned.

The justices voted unanimously to dismiss the case as moot. Justice John Paul Stevens issued a lone dissent to the additional decision to vacate the Seventh Circuit ruling.

This is quite similar to the infamous case of Roe v. Wade. If a matter has already been resolved, the court will not render a decision. In Roe v. Wade there was no way then, or now, to hear a case and rule without the issue being moot because a Supreme Court ruling from lower courts to the last stop would take more than nine months. In Roe v. Wade, the exception to mootness was applied. That exception means the issue could come up again and again but not be reviewed by the court because the basis of the complaint is resolved. In the instance of Illinois Criminal Forfeiture laws the issue will come up again. It may be of no consulation to the respondents in Alvarez v. Smith, includingTyhesha Brunston.

For Brunston, the snafu is one final insult in a three year saga. The story goes back to 2006 when she saved up money to buy the car so she could balance her full time job with going to college four nights a week from 6 to 9. She couldn't afford to park downtown so a friend drove her. In return he got to use the car during the days but when he was pulled over with drugs police seized the vehicle. It took three years before prosecutor's dropped that case and they wouldn't give Brunston her car back until the criminal case was resolved.

It's back to the drawing board to protect the rights of innocent owners in vehicle forfeiture matters.

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