Bloomberg Law
April 17, 2023, 2:23 PMUpdated: April 17, 2023, 4:00 PM

Car Seizures Are New Test for Justices on Property Rights (1)

Lydia Wheeler
Lydia Wheeler
Senior Reporter

The US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that asks whether people are owed an immediate hearing to recover property that was seized by the government in a crime they didn’t commit.

At the center of the case granted Monday are two Alabama residents whose cars were impounded when someone else was arrested while driving them.

Lena Sutton lost her car after her roommate was pulled over for speeding and arrested for possessing large amounts of methamphetamine. Halima Culley lost her vehicle when her son was pulled over and arrested for illegally possessing drugs and a firearm.

Sutton and Culley argue the state violated their due process rights because they weren’t given a chance to keep their cars pending a resolution of forfeiture proceedings.

They say the Fourteenth Amendment entitles them to a pre-trial hearing on whether their cars should be held and if continued impoundment is the least restrictive way for the state to secure its interest in the vehicles.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected their claims, saying a timely merits hearing in the civil asset forfeiture case affords claimants all the process they’re due.

Timeliness of such a hearing is governed by the test set in Barker v. Wingo, the appeals court said. In that 1972 decision, the Supreme Court said four factors should be considered: The length of delay, the reason for delay, the claimant’s assertion of rights, and the prejudice to the claimant.

Sutton and Culley argued the test set in Mathews v. Eldridge should apply. That 1976 Supreme Court decision considers three factors: The private interest of the claimant, the risk of erroneous deprivation, and the government’s interest.

The women said they were without their vehicles for over a year, they were innocent owners, and the state could’ve protected its interest in the vehicle by requiring a bond.

“The Eleventh Circuit itself recognizes that it is the only circuit holding that the civil asset forfeiture proceeding itself ratifies due process as to the pretrial restraint of assets, recognizing contrary authority from the Fifth, Tenth, Seventh, Fourth, Ninth, Eighth, and Third Circuits,” they said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Sutton and Culley had had the option under state law of posting bond to secure release of their property, but never did nor did they allege the bond procedure was inadequate.

“Nor did Petitioners take any action to expedite the forfeiture proceedings, which ultimately concluded with Petitioners getting back their cars,” he said.

The case is Culley v. Marshall, U.S., No. 22-585.

(Updated with additional context from the court filings.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Wheeler in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at; John Crawley at

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