Saturday, December 05, 2009

Choosing Amicus, Obama Style

Interesting note in an Agitator column.

In September I wrote a column on Alvarez v. Smith, the forfeiture case that will be decided early next year by the Supreme Court. That case is a challenge to a provision in the Illinois forfeiture laws that allow police to keep seized property a year or more before a claimant can have his day in court to get it back. This is particularly harsh on low-income people who may rely a seized car to get to work, or to shuttle kids around.

It’s worth noting that Obama’s Justice Department filed an amicus brief on behalf of the state in that case. They weren’t obligated to. Though the solicitor general’s office is charged with defending all federal laws, the law at issue in Alvarez is a state law, not a federal one. In fact, federal civil forfeiture laws are much friendlier to property owners. So you could make a decent case that the administration could have argued against the Illinois law. At the very least, it could have kept quiet. Instead, it argued that the state should retain the power to take property from people without ever charging a crime (and not necessarily kingpins—the Illinois law in question applies only to property valued at under $20,000), and keep that property for a year or more before affording the owner a chance to get it back.

Taking property from poor people without due process of law in order to enrich local police departments. Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought to change in his days as a community organizer.


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