Statement issued Tuesday:
INDIANAPOLIS – Standing on the side of law enforcement, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office will provide legal representation to a group of county prosecutors named last week in a civil lawsuit, Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced today.
Prosecuting attorneys are considered state judicial officers. Under Indiana Code 33-23-13-3, the Attorney General’s Office represents prosecuting attorneys in any civil suit filed in connection with their jobs, and the state’s representation is triggered once a prosecutor makes a request. A number of the 78 prosecutors named in the lawsuit unsealed last week have invoked that statute and asked the Attorney General to defend them, and Zoeller expects that more requests will be forthcoming.
“Accusing prosecutors of intentionally violating the False Claims Act strikes me as unfair public criticism, when this disagreement over the calculation of money really is a dispute over the state’s public policy, not false claims. The plaintiff’s framing the lawsuit in a way to claim to be representing the state will not keep me from my duty to defend prosecutors in court against civil lawsuits. The proper place to argue that Indiana’s civil forfeiture law is too lax or too vague is the Indiana General Assembly, which can introduce and pass a bill to change the law. I would support legislative efforts to clarify the civil forfeiture law to provide more transparency and certainty, but that debate ought to happen in the Legislature, not in civil court,” Zoeller said.
At issue is the filing of civil forfeiture suits against the property of drug offenders or other criminals. Under Indiana law, prosecutors can seek to seize the proceeds of crime -- and use those proceeds to fund law enforcement efforts.
Filed in Marion County Superior Court, the plaintiff’s complaint had named 78 prosecutors -- some of them former prosecutors no longer in office -- as defendants in a case questioning their actions in civil forfeiture cases. The plaintiff claims prosecutors have violated a state statute that directs any money from civil forfeitures exceeding law enforcement costs to be transferred to the Indiana Common School Fund.
Zoeller noted that county prosecutors have great autonomy under current state law to calculate law enforcement costs, and that property can’t be seized under civil forfeiture unless a court approves it first.
“Many counties investigate drug crimes using their local drug task force. Drug crimes don’t occur in isolation; they involve networks of suspects. Undercover investigations of drug rings are inherently dangerous and can require months or years to develop enough evidence before the prosecutor can file charges. Under current law, prosecutors have the discretion to apply assets recovered under civil forfeiture to overall law enforcement costs, rather than having police bill by the hour,” Zoeller said.
“Prosecutors who protect the public from dangerous predators by investigating crimes, filing charges, and winning trials do not need to be distracted by civil litigation over public policy. Although it has been inaccurately suggested that we either must side with the plaintiff or do nothing, the law is clear that the Attorney General’s Office represents prosecutors, as we do every day in appellate court. We will provide our clients, the prosecutors, with a zealous defense,” Zoeller added.