The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared sympathetic on Monday to Alabama officials who defended a law that allows police to seize and impound cars after drug arrests despite the owners having no direct ties to the alleged crime, Reuters reports. The case tests the power of law enforcement to retain property seized by police that belongs to people not charged with a crime. The high 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 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. Some 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 a summary judgment in their favor or rule on an expedited basis. 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.