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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.

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"I would apply the general rule against vacating appellate judgments that have become moot because the parties settled," he wrote.

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Peters said he would start the case over. He said he filed his first challenge to the Illinois forfeiture law 15 years ago and that another year wouldn't stop it. "Nothing has changed with regard to the merits, the due process issue," he said.

The lawyer said he anticipates losing at District Court level but winning again at the Seventh Circuit. Next it would be up to the State's Attorney whether to appeal, again, to the US Supreme Court.

Peters wasn't the only lawyer disappointed by the Supreme Court's action. Thomas O'Brien of the Legal Aid Society in New York City filed a friend of the court brief and was following the case closely.

Mr. O'Brien said he hopes Peters keeps fighting. "I think his chances are good," he said.

O'Brien said the issue isn't really whether people get their car back or not. "The case is about a prompt hearing," he said.

The Legal Aid lawyer brought a similar case in New York six years ago.

He argued that once police seized a car, the owner faced the daunting prospect of having to hire a lawyer, continue to make car payments for a car that was unavailable, find a way to get to work, and keep living a life while fighting the bureaucracy of forfeiture.

O'Brien won his case. The courts ordered a system that guarantees an expedited hearing before a judge within 10 business days. The judge examines police reports and charging documents and listens to the owner's side of the story before ruling.

Thousands of cars impounded

"When we started the hearing process in 2004 there were 6,000 cars in New York impoundment lots without any legal recourse to argue," he says. "That's what happens when you don't have a prompt hearing; the cars just sit there in government custody."

If there is no trial for a year or two, O'Brien says, most people stop making car payments and abandon the vehicle.

"Ironically, the state isn't really gaining value if something is rusting and depreciating away," he says.

O'Brien says the New York procedure provides a workable model for Chicago and other jurisdictions. The federal appeals court decision ordering the faster review process was written by a highly regarded judge who recently left New York City to accept a promotion.

That judge is Sonia Sotomayor. Ironically, she voted to vacate the Seventh Circuit ruling. She offered no explanation beyond the reasoning in Justice Stephen Breyer's majority decision.

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