In post-seizure civil forfeiture proceedings, does due process require an additional “retention hearing” and in analyzing that question, should a district court apply Barker v. Wingo’s speedy-trial test, or the three-part analysis announced by Mathews v. Eldridge?
This case asks the Supreme Court to balance a civil forfeiture claimant’s due process rights against a state’s interests in forfeiture and procedural efficiency. Under Alabama state law, the State is required to file a motion for forfeiture proceedings promptly after the seizure of property. In the interim, the statute allows claimants to request return of property believed to be illegally seized, and to post a bond worth twice the value of the property. Lena Sutton and Halima Culley contend that Alabama violated their due process rights by failing to provide a retention hearing and urge the Court to apply the standard from Mathews v. Eldridge to determine whether Alabama’s civil forfeiture processes are sufficient. Steve T. Marshall, Attorney General of Alabama, counters that due process does not require more than the State’s timely initiation of proceedings and thus urges the Court to apply the speedy-trial test from Barker v. Wingo. The outcome of this case has significant implications for the future of private property rights and state interests in civil asset forfeiture cases.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether district courts, in determining whether the due process clause requires a state or local government to provide a post-seizure probable-cause hearing prior to a statutory judicial-forfeiture proceeding and, if so, when such a hearing must take place, should apply the “speedy trial” test employed in United States v. $8,850 and Barker v. Wingo or the three-part due process analysis set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge.
Petitioners Halima Culley and Lena Sutton both owned vehicles that were seized under Alabama laws which allow the state to hold, subject to civil forfeiture proceedings, property used to facilitate drug crimes. Culley v. Attorney Gen. at 2. On February 17, 2019, Culley’s son was pulled over while driving and arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Id. The State of Alabama filed a forfeiture action in state court on February 27 against Culley’s vehicle. Id. at 3. Similarly, Alabama also filed a forfeiture action against Sutton’s vehicle on March 5, two weeks after Sutton's friend was pulled over and arrested for possession of methamphetamine. Id. at 2.
Culley and Sutton were granted summary judgment on Alabama’s civil forfeiture actions based on the innocent-owner defense – that the act was committed without the knowledge of the owner of the property. Sutton v. Leesburg, Ala. at 7. However, Culley and Sutton were deprived of access to their vehicles for over a year after their vehicles were seized, unable to access the seized property until their motion for summary judgment was granted. Culley at 4. Alabama’s laws only provided one means for claimants to reclaim seized property while civil forfeiture actions were pending: posting a bond worth twice the value of the vehicle. Sutton at 7.
Culley and Sutton filed federal class-action complaints claiming damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing the civil-forfeiture procedure under Alabama law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by not providing a prompt post-deprivation hearing for defendants. Culley at 4. Culley sued the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, the District Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit of Alabama, and the City of Satsuma in the Southern District of Alabama. Sutton sued the town of Leesburg, Alabama in the Northern District of Alabama; the Attorney General of Alabama and the District Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit of Alabama later intervened in Sutton's case, becoming a party in Sutton’s suit as well. Id. at 1. Alabama filed to dismiss both Culley’s and Sutton’s claims. Id. at 4.
Both district courts held that the four-factor test from Barker v. Wingo and United States v. $8,850 governed civil-forfeiture cases such as these. Id. at 4–5. The four-factor test assesses whether delays in civil forfeiture proceedings are justified, weighing: (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reason for the delay, (3) the claimant’s assertion of their right to a speedy trial, and (4) prejudice to the claimant. Barker v. Wingo at 17. The district courts in both cases held in favor of Alabama. Culley at 4. Both petitioners appealed. Id. at 3. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated these two cases and affirmed the decisions of the district courts, holding that the binding law is the timeliness factor analysis of Barker, not a three-part analysis used in Mathews v. Elridge. Id. at 8.
HISTORICAL PRACTICE AND APPLICABILITY OF PRECEDENT
Halima Tariffa Culley et al. argue that when evaluating whether existing civil proceeding procedures comport with the Fourteenth Amendment, (1) the balancing test in Mathews generally applies, and (2) precedent does not require applying Barker v. Wingo. Brief for Petitioners, Halima Tariffa Culley et al. (“Culley”) at 17–18, 37. First, according to Culley, the Supreme Court has consistently applied the Mathews framework to questions implicating the sufficiency of procedure in civil suits. Id. at 17–21. Culley contends that the Court consolidated its pre-Mathews cases’ analytical framework into Mathews’s three-prong inquiry: considering (1) private interests affected by the action (2) the risk of the procedure erroneously depriving such interests; (3) the government’s interest. Id. at 17, 21–24. Further, Culley asserts the Mathews test embodies the flexibility of case-by-case determinations due process requires. Id. at 18, 24–25. Lastly, Culley posits that civil forfeiture proceedings pose a risk to the guarantee of procedural due process that Mathews is equipped to evaluate, since due process requires a retention hearing to guard against deprivation of property contemporaneous with forfeiture proceedings. Id. at 25–28.
Second, Culley disputes the authority of $8,850 and United States v. Von Neumann. Brief for Petitioners at 37–44. Culley claims $8,850 did not establish Barker’s applicability to the question presented. Id. at 37. According to Culley, $8,850 narrowly employed Barker in considering the due process implications of the government’s speed in initiating post-seizure forfeiture proceedings because the Sixth Amendment’s protection against undue delay in criminal cases paralleled the 18-month interim at issue. Id. at 37–38. However, Culley emphasizes, a delay in rendering final judgment on ultimate ownership at issue in $8,850 is distinct from the issue at hand, a lack of procedural safeguards protecting against post-seizure deprivation pending ultimate ownership determination. Id. at 38–39. Similarly, Culley maintains Von Nuemann did not decisively address which due process framework applies here because Von Nuemann concerned delay in addressing an existing procedure, not the availability of additional procedures. Id. at 42–44.
In opposition, Steven T. Marshall, Attorney General of Alabama et al. (“Marshall”) assert that the Court’s decisions in $8,850 and Von Neumann speak to the due process guarantee in this case. Brief for Respondents, Steven T. Marshall et al. at 16–17. According to Marshall, when process is delayed after seizure, the guarantee is timeliness of post-seizure proceedings—an inquiry guided by Barker’s speedy-trial test. Id. Marshall disputes that Mathews is universally applicable to due process claims, maintaining that the Court previously rejected its applicability in Dusenbery v. United States and Medina v. California, and that where the Court has historically or traditionally opted for another test, the precedent will override Mathews’s “general approach.” Id. at 26–28. Marshall contends that, since $8,850 deemed Barker the appropriate standard and Von Nuemann followed $8,850 by applying Barker to a civil forfeiture due process question, the Court would neglect authoritative precedent if it adopted Mathews here. Id. at 25–28.
Marshall disagrees with Culley’s readings of $8,850 and Von Nuemann. Brief for Respondents at 18–25. Marshall acknowledges that, like Culley, the $8,850 claimant argued for an additional and improved procedure: a “prompt decision” on a petition. Id. Marshall concludes that $8,850’s application of Barker on this additional procedure claim supports applicability to the question here. Id. at 19–20. Additionally, Marshall disputes that Von Nuemann considered merely the issue of delay, arguing that the Court denied anotherclaim for an additional hearing immediately post-seizure. Id. at 22–24. Marshall further posits that the Court’s denial to require prompt resolution of an existing procedure suggests that due process does not require additional procedural safeguards. Id. at 24.
APPROPRIATE DUE PROCESS FRAMEWORK
Culley asserts Mathews is the proper due process standard, arguing that Barker is inadequate to address questions regarding sufficiency of process in a civil case. Brief for Petitioners at 28–30. Culley maintains that the Barker framework exclusively focuses on the timeliness of existing criminal processes and cannot address civil actions. Id. at 30–32. Further, Culley argues that Barker fails to accommodate established due process principles: (1) the balancing of private and governmental interests and (2) the flexible nature of due process. Id. at 34–36. First, Culley claims that Barker does not account for property interests that receive varying degrees of due process protection—particularly those associated with temporary deprivation. Id. at 34–35. Similarly, Culley asserts Barker is limited in evaluating governmental interest because its analysis merely produces the government’s justification for delay, not the government’s interest in conducting a civil proceeding absent additional processes. Id. at 35. Second, Culley notes that, unlike Mathews, Barker’s application will never lead to a due process determination requiring a retention hearing because a precedent applying Barker holds that due process is satisfied when the forfeiture hearing is timely. Id. at 36.
On the other hand, Marshall contends that Barker is the proper framework, even if $8,850 and Von Nuemann do not command its application, because a timely civil forfeiture proceeding satisfies due process where pre-seizure process is not required. Brief for Respondents at 28–29. Marshall further argues that Mathews is less equipped to address remedy and the due process principles cited by Culley. Id. at 32–37. First, Marshall contends that Mathews improperly diagnoses the procedural problem as a lack of procedure rather than timeliness, and its application may further delay resolution by adding procedure. Id. at 35. Marshall elaborates that alleged harms incurred from property deprivation are instead attributable to the length of the delay, and the possibility of “error” (second Mathews factor) could be ameliorated by an earlier hearing. Id. Marshall concludes that Barker balances interests more aptly by considering the length of delay. Id. at 37. Moreover, Marshall cautions that, if Mathews requires a retention hearing, the government’s interests in protecting forfeitable property from removal, destruction, or concealment would be unduly contravened. Id. at 29–34. Lastly, Marshall refutes that Barker is inflexible due to its demand of case-by-case review focused on the cause of delay. Id. at 36–37.
APPLYING FRAMEWORK: OUTCOME OF DUE PROCESS EVALUATION
Under Mathews, Culley contends that Alabama failed to provide a retention hearing and thus violated due process. Brief for Petitioners at 45. Culley argues that the first Mathews factor favors Petitioners because the Court has traditionally recognized the harm and significance of depriving an individual of their vehicle as it relates to maintaining their livelihood. Id. at 45–46. Culley states Alabama’s statute does not realize property rights for innocent owners if the state deprives them of possession during forfeiture proceedings. Id. at 46. Culley argues the second factor favors Petitioners as well; Culley maintains Alabama erroneously deprived both Sutton and Culley of their vehicles for over a year, while repeatedly denying release requests as innocent owners. Id. at 46–47. Additionally, Culley asserts that Alabama’s option to post bond for double the vehicle’s value was “excessive” and therefore did not release Alabama from its failure to provide a retention hearing. Id. at 47–49. Lastly, Culley argues Alabama’s governmental interest (the third Mathews factor) is weak, weighing in favor of Petitioners, again. Id. at 48. Culley contends that Alabama’s interest in preventing destruction or concealment of the property, as well as against its involvement in perpetuating criminal activity, is not convincing here because the owners are innocent—which a retention hearing could have established. Id. at 49.
Marshall instead argues neither Barker nor Mathews establishes a due process violation. Brief for Respondents at 48–53. Under Barker, Marshall claims all factors weigh in favor of the State. Id. at 48. Marshall asserts there was (1) no lengthy delay because Alabama initiated processes within two weeks post-seizure, distinguishing duration of deprivation from delay; (2) the delay was due to Sutton’s and Culley’s failure to advance the proceedings by using existing procedures; (3) Sutton and Culley failed to assert their procedural rights—e.g., challenge the seizure, post bond, and/or promptly file for summary judgment; and (4) the delay did not prejudice Sutton nor Culley in asserting their defense as innocent owners. Id. at 48–49. Marshall disputes that Mathews factors favor Sutton and Culley. Id. First, Marshall emphasizes Sutton and Culley’s private interest must be discounted because they failed to use existing procedures. Id. at 50. Second, Marshall maintains that Alabama’s current procedures present a low risk of erroneous deprivation and that law enforcement’s release request denials do not amount to an error. Id. at 50–51. Third, Marshall contends that Sutton’s and Culley’s ultimate innocence does not negate Alabama’s initial interest in preventing criminal activity. Id. at 52. Even where all procedural protections fail, Marshall argues due process is satisfied by common-law tort post-deprivation actions, which Alabama provides as a tort claim for conversion for money damages calculated by the harm caused by unlawful deprivation. Id. at 47–48.
UTILITY OF CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE
The American Civil Liberties Union, CATO Institute, and Rutherford Institute (“ACLU”), in support of Culley, assert that the inadequacy of due process modern civil forfeiture procedures unjustifiably infringes on people's civil and constitutional rights. Brief of Amici Curiae American Civil Liberties Union et al., in Support of Petitioners at 5. ACLU allege that contemporary forfeiture schemes have become materially more harmful over time, as law enforcement agencies grow more dependent on forfeiture revenues and civilians more reliant on their vehicles. Id. at 6–7. The Pacific Legal Foundation, Goldwater Institute, and Manhattan Institute (“PLF”) further allege that weaker civil forfeiture standards lead to disproportionate harm for the poor and innocent, as local law enforcement is incentivized to seize property from those without the means to post bail or file legal claims and use it to bolster their own budget. Brief of Amici Curiae Pacific Legal Foundation et al., in Support of Petitioners at 8. ACLU purport this trend would get worse with looser restrictions, as many law enforcement agencies already depend on funds procured by asset forfeiture, incentivizing law enforcement to tread closer to violating constitutional law. Brief of the American Civil Liberties Union at 8.
The State of Georgia and twelve other states (“Georgia”), in support of Marshall, argue that legitimating Culley’s claims would undercut law enforcement’s ability to respond to crime. Brief of Amici Curiae for Georgia, et al., in Support of Respondents at 7. Georgia claims that civil forfeiture serves an essential role in disincentivizing future use of similar property for illegal activities and imposes serious financial harm to criminal organizations by cutting into the profits and property used to bribe officials or procure supplies. Id. The International Municipal Lawyers Association and National League of Cities (“IMLA”) highlight that civil forfeiture is also essential in granting law enforcement the ability to confiscate property that can be easily concealed or destroyed, improving investigatory and evidentiary ability. Brief of Amici Curiae of International Municipal Lawyers Association and National League of Cities, in Support of Respondents at 10–11.
LEGAL CONSISTENCY ACROSS STATE LINES
ACLU, in support of Culley, argue ensuring baseline constitutional protections is necessary to protect the property rights of citizens and improve clarity of law for different states and localities. Brief of the American Civil Liberties Union at 7. ACLU contend that loosening due process rights would allow states to arbitrarily infringe on people's right to life and liberty in ways that offer minimal structural recourse. Id. at 6. PLF highlight long procedural waits can lead to coercive conditions where citizens must set aside their constitutional rights to retrieve essential property faster via settlement or guilty pleading. Brief of Pacific Legal Foundation at 7–8. Restore the Fourth, Inc. (“Restore the Fourth”) underlines the paramount importance robust protections of property rights have been afforded historically, specifically with respect to how consequential the government seizure of vehicles can be to people’s liberties and livelihood. Brief of Amicus Curiae Restore the Fourth, Inc., in Support of Petitioners at 9. PLF also allege that robust and universal constitutional protections are fundamental to ensuring property rights across state borders, especially with respect to cars which regularly facilitate inter-state travel but also require maintenance and depreciate over time and could do so when seized arbitrarily. Brief of Pacific Legal Foundation at 9.
Georgia, in support of Marshall, counters that imposing further federal restrictions on state police policy would confuse state governments and reduce their ability to fluidly modify procedures to respond to different local priorities. Brief of Georgia, et al. at 27. IMLA highlight that a finding for Culley would disrupt long-established precedents across many jurisdictions, upsetting traditional understandings and legal norms and imposing misplaced political pressure on local legislatures adhering to vague and novel federal law. Brief of International Municipal Lawyers Association at 5–7. Georgia argues this would confuse local legislatures, hindering their ability to pass effective, constitutional laws, and would harm innocent citizens by complicating the procedures for asserting one's right to retrieve their own property. Brief of Georgia, et al. at 30. IMLA further argue such that restricting state-by-state procedures from operating flexibly might hinder law enforcement’s ability to identify, investigate, and promptly return forfeited property. Brief of International Municipal Lawyers Association at 11.
- Lydia Wheeler, Car Seizures Are New Test for Justices on Property Rights, Bloomberg Law (April 17, 2023).
- Marco Poggio, Justices to Hear Wheether Post-Seizure Hearings Are Required,
Law360 (April 21, 2023).
- John Sharp, Alabama Civil Asset Forfeiture Faces Consitutional Challenges as Lawmakers Ponder Reform, AL.com (October 07, 2019).