December 08, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Alvarez v. Smith

On December 8, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Alvarez v. Smith, No. 08-351.

The Supreme Court had granted review to consider whether Illinois law provides a sufficiently speedy opportunity for an individual to contest the lawfulness of the warrantless seizure of his or her car or cash. At oral argument, however, counsel for both sides confirmed that there was no longer any dispute about the ownership or possession of the relevant property.

The Court held that, because there was no longer an actual controversy between the parties, the case was moot. Plaintiffs argued that their claim for damages kept the controversy alive. But the Court found that the damages claim had not been properly raised. The Court also held that the alleged injuries caused by Illinois's procedures did not fall within the doctrine allowing courts to review otherwise moot controversies that are "capable of repetition" while "evading review." Other injured parties, held the Court, could bring damages actions and hence gain review.

Because the case was moot, the Court vacated the judgment below. The Court acknowledged that, under U. S. Bancorp Mortgage Co. v. Bonner Mall Partnership, 513 U. S. 18, 21 (1994), it ordinarily did not vacate lower court judgments mooted by settlement. But here, the parties did not settle their dispute in federal court. Separate, state proceedings resolved the ownership and possession of the property. It was therefore proper to vacate the federal judgment.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, and Sotomayor joined, and in which Justice Steven joined in part. Justice Stevens filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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