In April 2015, police in Indiana seized almost $10,000 from Terry Abbott after he was arrested for selling drugs to a confidential informant.
Cops used a process known as civil forfeiture, allowing them to proceed with pocketing those funds prior to securing a criminal conviction. Naturally, Abbott attempted to challenge that action in court. But he lost his attorney—as the money he would use to pay for that counsel had been taken by the state.
So for years he had to represent himself.
The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday decided that’s in keeping with the law—ruling that defendants have no right to use their seized funds to finance legal representation.
“We do not find the legislature intended this language to give the court equitable authority to order the seized property released to the defendant to defend the forfeiture action,” wrote Justice Steven H. David, noting that the court’s hands were tied by the relevant statute on the books.
Central to the American criminal justice system is that every defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But civil forfeiture isn’t a criminal action; it’s a civil one, occurring in civil court, where defendants are not necessarily entitled to a lawyer. Only in certain extraordinary circumstances, the court ruled, is the state required to provide one.
Abbott didn’t qualify. This means that, in cases like his, the government is able to put defendants in a chokehold by seizing the very assets that they would use to defend themselves against such a seizure. Fighting to get your cash back is a bit difficult when the government has taken all of your cash.