Indiana's highest court will consider whether all civil forfeitures in the state must be paid into a fund that helps school districts pay for technology upgrades, building new schools and other projects.
The Indiana Supreme Court must decide whether a state constitutional requirement that "all forfeitures" be paid to the Common School Fund really means "all," The Times of Northwest Indiana reported .
Police and prosecutors have been permitted by Indiana law since 1984 to divert for "expenses" a portion of the revenue generated through the seizure of property and cash connected to criminal enterprises — a process known as civil forfeiture.
Such forfeitures generated $3.4 million during 2017, but only about $63,000 was deposited in the Common School Fund, according to the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
The fund is used to pay for educational technology programs, school construction, charter school operations, and to help pay down local school deficits.
Six taxpayers are suing Marion County over its civil forfeiture distribution scheme. And the high court, in a rare move, has agreed to bypass a review of that case by the Indiana Court of Appeals.
The justices will decide whether Marion Superior Judge Thomas Carroll was correct in ruling that "all forfeitures" does not include civil forfeitures, which he said were not known when the state Constitution was adopted in 1851.
A new Indiana law that took effect Sunday permits police and prosecutors in every county to retain 90 percent of forfeiture proceeds, regardless of expenses, with just 10 percent dedicated to the Common School Fund.
The six taxpayers suing Marion County said in a court filing that the new law makes it even more urgent for the state Supreme Court to determine if the Indiana Constitution actually means what it says.
"Whether that revenue must go to the school fund or whether it can be diverted elsewhere is an important statewide question of constitutional law, making it appropriate for review," they said.
The plaintiffs also warned that not directing civil forfeiture proceeds to the school fund opens the door to policing for profit — where police agencies and prosecutors supplement their budgets by, for example, seeking forfeiture of vehicles used in minor theft cases.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry urged the state Supreme Court to take the case, calling the distribution of forfeitures a "substantial question of law of great public importance."
Indiana's forfeiture practices also are set for review by the U.S. Supreme Court by early next year. In a separate case, the state sought forfeiture of a drug dealer's $42,000 Land Rover, even though the maximum fine tied to his crimes was $10,000. The court will decide whether the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines apply to state forfeiture cases.