“”One of the many pernicious things about civil forfeiture nationwide is that the government has the power to seize your cash, and your cars, and your home, but unlike in a criminal case, you don’t have a right to appoint counsel,” says Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice and a lawyer for Abbott. “So if you want to defend your cash, or your car, or your homes in a civil forfeiture action, you typically just have to pay for a lawyer yourself, and that’s not surprisingly economically infeasible for lots of people who are targeted in civil forfeiture actions.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the state or the federal government can try to take you for nearly all you’re worth in the process. People in Indiana may know that quite well. The state was the setting for one of the most high-profile forfeiture showdowns after Indiana took possession of Tyson Timbs’ new Land Rover in 2013 following his arrest for a drug crime, setting in motion an almost decade-long legal circus between Timbs and the government. State officials were eventually required to return the vehicle in 2020. But prosecutors continued to fight, arguing before the Indiana Supreme Court in 2021 that there should be no proportionality—no limit—on what the government can seize in cases like Timbs’. (The state’s highest court rejected that winning argument last summer.)
Yet civil forfeiture continues apace and is a source of police funding, with local and state departments able to keep the vast majority of the funds they take. Just last year, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to allow cops to seize assets from people suspected of committing “unlawful assembly,” a charge so vague that whether or not someone committed it is somewhat in the eye of the beholder—who, in this case, would be an arresting officer.
Civil forfeiture is also used at the federal level, and it presents many of the same problems. In May 2020, the FBI seized almost $1 million from Carl Nelson after informing him he was under investigation for allegedly committing fraud. Two years later, no criminal charges have been filed, and the government returned some of the cash. Not unlike Abbott, however, the government’s action made it a Herculean task for Nelson to push back, as he had been temporarily bankrupted. “If you can’t afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself, it becomes complicated,” Amy Nelson, his wife, told me in February.
As for the Hoosier state? “The ball is very much in the Indiana Legislature’s court,” says Gedge.”