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Federal Appeals Court Limits Illinois Car Seizure
A federal appeals court ruled that Illinois must reform its car seizure rules to allow for due process.

Judge Terence T. Evans
The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit earlier this month began to reexamine its stance on the expanding scope of property seizures in Illinois. A unanimous three-judge panel found that Chicago Police violated the federal Constitution in seizing automobiles without offering any opportunity for the accused to challenge the move for up to six months. This finding overturned a 1994 decision, Jones v. Takaki, in which the court sided with Chicago police officers who had taken Marcy Jones' 1990 Chevrolet Camaro and held it for fifty days without ever finding any drugs or filing any criminal charges against Jones. Jones unsuccessfully argued she had a right to a prompt hearing.

"We seemed to reject the claim in Jones," Judge Terence T. Evans wrote for the court. "But our present reexamination of the issue convinces us that the answer is not so clear."

Under Illinois law, vehicles and cash can be permanently confiscated by law enforcement as long as an officer asserts probable cause that it was involved in a drug crime. For a car worth less than $20,000, a local police force can hold a car on its own authority up to 187 days before even filing notice with a court of law or allowing any sort of hearing. More expensive vehicles merit a hearing within 97 days of seizure. After this period, a court could initiate a forfeiture proceeding.

"Our reconsideration of the issue leads us to find that the procedures set out in [the Illinois seizure statute] show insufficient concern for the due process right of the plaintiffs," Evans wrote. "Our society is, for good or not, highly dependent on the automobile. The hardship posed by the loss of one's means of transportation, even in a city like Chicago, with a well-developed mass transportation system, is hard to calculate. It can result in missed doctor's appointments, missed school, and perhaps most significant of all, loss of employment."

Under the statute, law enforcement agencies have a financial incentive to initiate seizures, as they are allowed in many cases to keep either the cars themselves or a significant portion of the proceeds from vehicle auctions. In Madison County, for example, State Attorney Bill Mudge is driving a 2002 Chevy Trailblazer seized from a man accused of drunk driving. Although the Trailblazer's owner had been convicted on two prior occasions, the Seventh Circuit began to examine the consequences that seizures have on those who have done nothing wrong.

"But consider the owner of an automobile which is seized because the driver -- not the owner -- is the one accused and whose actions cause the seizure," Judge Evans wrote. "The innocent owner can be without his car for months or years without a means to contest the seizure or even to post a bond to obtain its release."

The court ordered lower courts to fashion a system where owners should at a minimum be able to post such a bond and have an "informal" hearing soon after police take the car.

A full copy of the decision is available in a 95k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Smith v. City of Chicago (US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 5/2/2008)

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