Alvarez v. Smith

PETITIONER:Anita Alvarez, Cook County State’s Attorney
RESPONDENT:Chermane Smith, et al.
LOCATION: City of Chicago-Police Department

DOCKET NO.: 08-351
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)

CITATION: 558 US 87 (2009)
GRANTED: Feb 23, 2009
ARGUED: Oct 14, 2009
DECIDED: Dec 08, 2009

Paul A. Castiglione – argued the cause for the petitioner
Thomas Peters – argued the cause for the respondents
William M. Jay – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

The Chicago Police Department seized property belonging to the plaintiffs, using the power granted it by the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act (DAFPA). The plaintiffs filed suit in an Illinois federal district court under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 arguing that when property is seized under the DAFPA, due process requires a prompt, postseizure, probable cause hearing. The district court dismissed, but the plaintiffs asked for a rehearing in light ofMathews v. Eldridge, which prohibited the seizure of real property without a prior hearing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted review.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that the DAFPA did not provide adequate due process for an owner to contest the seizure of his property, reasoning the length of time between seizure and contest was too long (a maximum of 97 to 187 days). The court remanded the case and instructed the district court to devise a mechanism by which an owner can contest the validity of the retention of his property.


In determining whether the Due Process Clause requires a state or local government to provide a postseizure, probable cause hearing, prior to a forfeiture of property, should the district court apply the test employed inUnited States v. $8,850 or that inMathews v. Eldridge?

Media for Alvarez v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 14, 2009 in Alvarez v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 08, 2009 in Alvarez v. Smith

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion of the Court in case 08-351, Alvarez versus Smith.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Under Illinois law and certain circumstances, the police can seize a car or cash without a warrant; I suppose they were arresting somebody and they didn’t have time to get the warrant.

Now the question in this case was, whether Illinois law provides such a person with a sufficiently speedy opportunity to have a hearing, so he could contest that the law — that he — that it was an unlawful seizure.

Well when oral argument was taking place here, we learned that all the real arguments between the parties have ended.

The state returned the cars.

The disputes over the cash had been settled.

The case was not a damages case, not ongoing.

It wasn’t a class action.

It didn’t involve the kind of threat of repetitive action that might evade review.

So we have to say there is no continuing controversy and have to conclude that the case was moot.

Now there is still an issue, because ordinarily when a case is moot what we do is we order the judgment below vacated and we remand the case to the lower court with instructions to dismiss.

But there was a question here because in a case called Bankcorp, we said we’d let that lower court judgment stand, we wouldn’t vacate it.

When the mootness occurred because the parties settled the underlying case, we thought it seemed somewhat unfair to permit a party to moot a case, say deliberately or intentionally just by settling it to avoid our decision, understandable but we did it, but sometimes, but here however the termination of respondent’s underlying forfeiture case in the State Courts were not really settlements as the case Bankcorp meant to use that term.

We explain in our opinion that the termination of those forfeiture cases seem to have nothing to do or very little to do with any effort to avoid a decision here so we ended up saying we will follow our ordinary practice.

We vacate the judgment below.

We remand to the Court of Appeals with instructions to dismiss the case.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.