It’s Time for Civil Asset Forfeiture to Go

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

Under both Alabama and federal law, the government can take and keep your cash, your car, or your house – even if you are never charged with a crime. This program, known as civil asset forfeiture, turns the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head and has no place in Alabama.

Thanks to legislation introduced by Senator Orr (SB 213) and Representative Mooney (HB 287), this abusive practice may soon end here in Alabama.

Originally sold to the public as a tool for taking the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture has strayed far from its alleged purpose. In practice, drug kingpins are rarely the target: as our report with the Southern Poverty Law Center found, in half of the cases the amount of cash forfeited was $1,372 or less. The average amount of $1,372 is often less than the typical cost of hiring an attorney to challenge the seizure in court.

That’s not the most troubling finding. In 25% of the civil forfeiture cases we reviewed, there was not a corresponding criminal charge. Think about that – one in every four civil asset forfeiture cases involved the government taking and keeping a person’s property who was never even charged with a crime. In fact, in  2015 alone, local and state government entities kept at least $670,000 from property owners who were never changed with a crime.

It took some digging to learn all of this. Under current law, the government is not required to report what they have taken to a centralized database, so in order to gather data for our report, we had to write a computer program, purchase thousands of dollars worth of court records, and spend hundreds of hours reviewing them one by one. What they did with that money remains a mystery, because of the 138 agencies that were sent open records requests, only one responded with information about expenditures from its forfeiture account. Most agencies didn’t respond at all.

How did we get into this mess? It’s all about incentives.

Under Alabama law, law enforcement keeps up to 100% of the proceeds from forfeited property.

Under the federal program, Alabama law enforcement can keep up to 80% of the proceeds. Between 2000 and 2013, Alabama law enforcement agencies kept over $75 million in property, and, as is the case with the Alabama programs, none of that required a warrant or indictment, much less a criminal conviction.

Between state and federal programs, Alabama law enforcement raked in over $5 million in 2015 alone.  

Law enforcement should not be put in a position where they appear to value funding their budget over the protection of individual rights.

Thanks to Senator Orr and Representative Mooney, we have a very simple solution. Their legislation would:

  • Require that the forfeiture process occur within the criminal case. This legislation would ensure the government proves that the individual whose property was taken was actually convicted of a crime, and that the property seized was the product of, or that it facilitated, that crime. This places the burden back where it belongs – on the state
  • Protect innocent property owners. This legislation would create a process in which property owners can promptly challenge a seizure and/or assert that they did not know or consent to the use of their property in an alleged crime.
  • Bring transparency to the forfeiture process. This legislation would require annual, centralized reporting of all seizures and forfeitures and what law enforcement agencies spend forfeiture proceeds on.
  • Restricts the ability to abuse the federal forfeiture programs. This legislation would prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from federal forfeiture actions.

This legislation is a win-win. Criminal forfeiture protects innocent Alabama property owners and leaves in place the tools law enforcement needs to hold those who commit crimes accountable.

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