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Indiana marijuana case leads to court restricting police seizures

INDIANAPOLIS — Two court rulings have limited police seizures in the state of Indiana.

U.S. District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson has partially halted the seizure of vehicles in drug cases and related crimes in the state. She said state law violates due process because it doesn’t allow individuals to challenge a forfeiture before property is seized.

State law allows law enforcement to hold a vehicle without taking action for up to 180 days. If the state does file a forfeiture claim, the vehicle can be held indefinitely until the case is completed.

Leroy Washington was arrested and charged with resisting law enforcement, obstruction of justice and dealing marijuana. His vehicle was seized in September, and Washington requested the vehicle be returned in November.

Jeff Cardella, a professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of Washington in November.

“This is an injustice that I have wanted to change for several years,” Cardella said.

Magnus-Stinson said vehicles are an important form of personal property because they’re needed for transportation and to earn a living. Authorities must now provide a pre-forfeiture hearing when seizing vehicles suspected of being used in criminal activity.

The state Court of Appeals has also ruled that an alert from a drug-sniffing dog isn’t enough evidence to seize cash that may be tied to drug trafficking.

Indianapolis police discovered more than $30,000 in cash in two parcels in 2015 after a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the packages. They seized the money even though they didn’t find any controlled substances or records of drug trafficking connected to packages.

Judge John Baker said a positive alert from a drug dog isn’t enough to tie the money to illegal activity because studies show that up to 90 percent of U.S. currency has drug residue.

“Any of those individuals could conceivably have possessed and/or used the unidentified controlled substance, either legally or illegally, with or without an intent to commit drug trafficking,” Baker said.

The Legislature has an interim study committee reviewing the state’s forfeiture laws.