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Supreme Court to hear case on property seized in drug busts

The Supreme Court Wednesday looks at whether Chicago officials took too long to return property seized in drug busts to owners who turned out to be innocent.

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Asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement's most potent weapons against drug crimes. When private property such as cars, boats, houses, and money are used in a narcotics transaction, US laws allow the police not only to seize those assets but to profit from the seizures.

But a problem arises when the confiscated property belongs to someone unaware that crimes were taking place. In such instances, it can take a year or more for the owner to get back the seized property.

The US Supreme Court Wednesday takes up a case examining whether a federal appeals court was right when it ruled that officials in Chicago were taking too long to return property to innocent owners.

The case, Alvarez v. Smith, involves six individuals who filed a class action lawsuit challenging Illinois' Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedures Act (DAFPA). Three claims sought return of seized cash, three others involved cars.

The law provides for a series of administrative steps that can take from three to six months from the time of the seizure until a forfeiture hearing is held before a judge. The plaintiffs complained that was too long for an innocent owner to wait.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The appeals court likened the situation to the right of a criminal defendant to a speedy trial.

"The procedures set out in DAFPA show insufficient concern for the due process right of the plaintiffs," Judge Terence Evans wrote in the 3-0 decision.

The hardship is particularly great with the loss of a car, said Judge Evans. "Our society is, for good or not, highly dependent on the automobile," he said.

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