The Supreme Court seemed torn at an oral argument on Monday about whether to make it easier for people whose cars or other property were seized by the police to argue for their prompt return.
On the one hand, several justices said, the practice of confiscating property said to have been used to commit crimes, known as civil asset forfeiture, is easily abused.
“Clearly there are some jurisdictions that are using civil forfeiture as funding mechanisms,” said Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, adding that some of them make it unreasonably hard for innocent people to reclaim what was taken from them.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor added that the problem was systemic. “We know there are abuses of the forfeiture system,” she said. “We know it because it’s been documented throughout the country repeatedly.”
On the other hand, some justices said, the available procedures in the two cases before them, both from Alabama, may have been adequate. “Is this the case,” Justice Gorsuch asked, “that presents the due process problem that we should be worried about?”
Justice Sotomayor said she was worried that the court’s eventual ruling might sweep too broadly. “Bad facts make bad law, and I fear we may be headed that way,” she said.
She added, “Do we leave open the possibility that there are states, jurisdictions, that are abusing this process?”
One of the cases started after Halima Culley bought a 2015 Nissan Altima for her son to use at college. He was pulled over by the police in 2019 and arrested when they found marijuana. They also seized Ms. Culley’s car.
That same year, Lena Sutton lent her 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to a friend. He was stopped for speeding and arrested after the police found methamphetamine. Ms. Sutton’s car was also seized.
Alabama law lets so-called innocent owners reclaim seized property, and both women ultimately persuaded judges to return their cars. It took more than a year in each case, though there was some dispute about whether the women could have done more to hasten the process.
Justice Sotomayor said the disputes were characteristic of widespread problems.
“These cases are most important for one group of people: innocent owners,” she said. “Because they are people who claim they didn’t know about the criminal activity. Many of these cases involve parents with teenage or close-to-teenage children involved in drug activity. The ones that don’t may involve spouses or friends.”
Ms. Culley and Ms. Sutton filed class actions in federal court saying that they should have been afforded prompt interim hearings to argue for the return of the vehicles while their cases moved forward. Lower courts ruled against them.
Shay Dvoretzky, a lawyer for the women, said requiring interim hearings would be “workable and effective.”
Justice Elena Kagan asked Edmund G. LaCour Jr., Alabama’s solicitor general, why a prompt hearing should not be required.
“There are real problems here,” she said, “and those problems would be solved if you got a really quick probable cause determination. Why should we not do that?”
Mr. LaCour responded that “ample process was provided” to the two women. He added that the government had “a strong interest as well in making sure that crime doesn’t pay.”
Near the conclusion of the argument, Justice Gorsuch mused about the court’s task in the case, Culley v. Marshall, No. 22-585.
“How do we write a narrow opinion,” he asked, “that does no harm here?”