Published on: Thursday, May 9, 2024

If you lend your car to a family member or friend who is stopped and arrested for drug charges while driving your car in Alabama, state law permits seizure of a car “incident to an arrest” so long as the state then “promptly” initiates a forfeiture case. 

In Culley v. Marshall, No. 22-585 (May 9, 2024), the Court considered what test should district courts apply to determine whether a state or local government must provide a preliminary hearing to someone who has had property seized under a civil asset forfeiture law. In a 6 to 3 opinion delivered by Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and BarrettJ. The Court held:

When police seize and then seek civil forfeiture of a car that was used to commit a drug offense, the Constitution requires a timely forfeiture hearing. The question here is whether the Constitution also requires a separate preliminary hearing to determine whether the police may retain the car pending the forfeiture hearing. This Court’s precedents establish that the answer is no: The Constitution requires a timely forfeiture hearing; the Constitution does not also require a separate preliminary hearing.

Justice Gorsuch also filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Thomas. Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson. The dissenters criticize the majority's adoption of a universal rule that due process never requires the minimal check of a retention hearing before a police officer deprives an innocent owner of her car for months or years. The majority's rule "cannot be squared with the context-specific analysis that th[e] Court's due process doctrine requires." The majority's rule ignores the reality that police often have financial incentives to seize cars, hold them indefinitely, and then rely on an owner's lack of resources to forfeit those cars to fund agency budgets, all without any initial check by a judge as to whehter there is a basis to hold the car in the first place. What's more, "officers have a financial incentive to target marginalized groups, such as low-income communities of color, who are less likely to have the resources to challenge the forfeiture in court."  Given the diverse schemes adopted by states, some with adequate safeguards and some without, the dissenters argue the Court "should have identified the applicable due process test and left lower courts the flexibility to apply the appropriate test in these myriad circumstances."