Supreme Court dismisses challenge to Illinois forfeiture law
The Supreme Court dismissed a case pitting innocent property owners against Chicago police and prosecutors who held seized autos and other property for years under a controversial Illinois forfeiture act.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
More challenges to come
Thomas Peters, the Chicago-based lawyer for the property owners, said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court dismissal, but that he would continue to litigate the issue with a new group of plaintiffs.
"We are not going to go away," he said. "The system is very unfair and needs to be changed."
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.
Chevy Impala held for three years
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.