Suit claims Indy police misappropriating forfeiture money

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Claiming that Indianapolis law enforcement is illegally keeping millions of dollars from civil forfeitures, a national legal organization filed a complaint Wednesday in Marion Superior Court to stop the flow of proceeds into city coffers.

The Institute for Justice, a national organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, filed the lawsuit on behalf of three Indiana couples. It claims that the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, the city of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department are dividing civil forfeitures funds among themselves rather than forwarding the money to public schools as required by Article 8, Section 2 of the state’s constitution.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of private property—even millions—is the subject of civil-forfeiture actions in Marion county courts, but police and prosecutors have sent not a single penny of civil-forfeiture revenue to the common school fund in at least the last five years,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs are asking the state court to issue a permanent injunction preventing the agencies from keeping any forfeited property or proceeds from its sale. If the court denies that remedy for relief, the plaintiffs ask that the defendants be prohibited from retaining any more than their actual costs related to the civil forfeiture action.

In addition, the parties are requesting an award of nominal damages in the amount of $1.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office did not return messages seeking comment.

The complaint details the practice of forfeiture funds being split 30/70 between the prosecutor’s office and the police, respectively.  During 2011 and 2012, the lawsuit alleges, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office kept an average of $459,848 each year out of an average of roughly $1.5 million that was awarded annually from forfeiture actions.

Indiana’s Civil Forfeiture Statute allows police and prosecutors to deduct the costs associated with the civil forfeiture proceedings before the money is sent to the common school fund. However, the lawsuit asserts the diversion of funds violates the “plain text” of the Indiana Constitution, which “requires that ‘all’ forfeitures—not ‘some’ forfeitures—be sent to the school fund.”

Moreover, the complaint maintains Indianapolis police and prosecutors are interpreting the Civil Forfeiture Statutes incorrectly.

“Under this mistaken reading of the law, police and prosecutors retain staggering sums from forfeiture proceeds by wrongly characterizing them as reimbursement for ‘law enforcement costs,’” the lawsuit stated. “Rather than accurately represent to the courts the amounts needed to cover their actual costs in forfeiture cases, the Defendants have reached agreements among themselves to parcel out all of the property they seize and forfeit.”

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