By John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority on Monday appeared sympathetic to Alabama officials who defended a law that allowed police to seize and impound cars after drug arrests despite the owners having no direct ties to the alleged crime.
The case argued before the justices tests the power of law enforcement to retain property seized by police that belongs to people not charged with a crime.
The Supreme Court heard appeals by two women of lower court rulings rejecting their claims that the government's failure to provide a prompt court hearing to let them try to reclaim their property violated the Constitution's 14th Amendment promise that government not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."
Lena Sutton's vehicle was seized while it was being driven by a friend who borrowed it and was arrested for methamphetamine possession. Halima Culley's car was seized when her college-aged son was arrested for marijuana possession while driving it.
Despite pleas to law enforcement to return their property, Sutton had to wait 14 months and Culley 20 months before courts determined their cars should be returned. They separately filed class-action lawsuits in federal court seeking money damages against Alabama officials and the cities of Satsuma and Leesburg, where the arrests occurred.
The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority. Some of the conservative justices signaled that they view Alabama's existing legal process as adequate and suggested that property owners could jumpstart the process by promptly asking courts to issue what is called a summary judgment in their favor or rule on an expedited basis.
"If you had filed a motion for summary judgment a week after the property had been taken, or the process had begun - forfeiture proceedings began - would you be here?" conservative Justice Clarence Thomas asked a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Civil forfeiture laws permit the federal and state governments to seize and often permanently keep vehicles, real estate and other property alleged to have been used to carry out or facilitate a crime - even when the owner has not been convicted or even charged with a criminal offense.
Liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor railed against what she called "abuses of the forfeiture system."
"It's been documented throughout the country repeatedly of the incentives that police are given to seize property to keep its value," Sotomayor said. "We also know that that incentive has often led to months, if not years, of retention of property."
Some states require government officials to promptly show that seized property is likely involved in illegal activity and, failing that, return the assets while court proceedings over the owner's ultimate right to the property play out.
Since the suits were filed, Alabama has revised the civil forfeiture law at issue to let someone who claims to be an innocent owner request a hearing at any time after the property seizure.
Alabama had been among the U.S. states that did not mandate a prompt pretrial "retention hearing" in which the government must justify the property seizure. At issue in Monday's arguments was whether these prompt opportunities for owners to reclaim their property are necessary to fulfill constitutional due process requirements.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts asked if making retention hearings mandatory runs the risk of "compromising" a judge's final ruling on whether an owner's property should be returned or forfeited due to its link to crime, pointing to "such basic things as preservation of the property itself."
Federal judges ruled against the plaintiffs in their lawsuits and the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed those decisions. President Joe Biden's administration sided with Alabama in the case.
(Reporting by John Kruzel and additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)