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Restrictions on state forfeiture law to be debated by summer committee

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- When Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) narcotics detectives raided a unit at the Carlton Apartments in March, they seized $46,000 in cash and arrested three teenagers.

A raid last week led to the seizure of nearly $3,000 in cash. A pair of investigations last November resulted in the seizure of more than $7,000 in cash.

Those confiscations pale in comparison with a joint local/federal operation to smash a marijuana smuggling ring connecting Indianapolis and California last month which led to the seizure of more than $3.5 million and two dozen vehicles.

All of that money, and quite often cars and property, are subject to Indiana’s asset forfeiture law, which holds that authorities must only convince a civil judge, not a criminal court, that the suspects gained their assets through illegal activity so that the cash and property can be seized.

“What we take is ill gotten gains from illegal drug dealers,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings. “It's not the individual property of individual law abiding citizens.”

Defense attorneys see the state-mandated seizures as the confiscation of the property of suspects before they’re found guilty.

“They take the property immediately. No questions asked,” said Jeff Mendes, an Indianapolis attorney who has battled the state on behalf of his clients. “They believe that in drug cases everything is associated with drug money. They’ll take your tv. They’ll take your car. They’ll even take your house before you’re even proven guilty.”

Asset forfeiture often follows the finding of a criminal court judge that investigators have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and search and arrest warrants have been issued.

During the most recent General Assembly, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to restrict prosecutors and police from seizing property until a defendant was found guilty, but Governor Holcomb instead directed that the proposed legislation be sent to a summer study committee.

“If Indiana passes this law it will be the most lenient drug forfeiture law in the United States of America,” said Cummings who will serve on the study committee. “It will be the gold standard for protecting the illegal property gained by drug dealers who have profited by the sale of illegal drugs that are killing people on our streets.”

Last year, Cummings said heroin overdoses took 260 lives in Madison County while investigators seized approximately $250,000 in assets, most of it divided three ways between his office, law enforcement and lawyers representing the county.

Cummings said the proceeds go toward training, gear, salaries and programs run by his office and police.

Mendes said, “It's 50/50,” whether a client will prevail in appealing a forfeiture order while some of the defendants he represents freely sacrifice their assets in an attempt to avoid prosecution.

“You have a civil prosecutor versus a criminal prosecutor on these cases so the job of a civil forfeiture prosecutor is to try to get as much property as possible so long as it relates to the defendant’s illegal activity,” said Mendes.

Cummings said a forfeiture motion can be appealed, as is the case involving a $90,000 automobile owned by an NBA player whose brother was caught up in a drug investigation.