Rein in Policing for Profit

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Under both Alabama and federal law, if an individual law enforcement officer believes that your property (including cash) is tied to certain criminal activities, they can seize it, even if you are never convicted of – or even charged with – a crime. You then have the burden to prove in court that your property was legally obtained. That’s right – your property is guilty until proven innocent.

Under Alabama Law, law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. Under the federal program, Alabama law enforcement keeps 80 percent of the forfeited property, with the remaining 20 percent going to the federal government.

Civil asset forfeiture:

Turns the presumption of innocence on its head. A cornerstone of the American justice system is the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Yet under Alabama law, your property is guilty until you prove its innocence. To forfeit property in Alabama, the state need only show to the court’s “reasonable satisfaction” (preponderance standard) that the property in question is related to certain criminal activities. And, under most circumstances, the property owner bears the burden of proving that the property was obtained lawfully. It’s time for Alabama lawmakers to place the burden where it belongs – on the state.

Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable. Victims of forfeiture abuse have no right to an attorney. Thus, those who seek to have their property returned by the state not only bear the burden of proving their property was lawfully obtained, but also the financial burden of hiring an attorney. This means that those who cannot afford an attorney must defend themselves. While no Alabamian should bear the cost of having their lawfully obtained property returned, Alabama’s most vulnerable are often left without any true recourse at all.

Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.Under Alabama law, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. Thus, law enforcement agencies have an incentive to seize as much property as possible, knowing that for anything but real property the owner will then have the burden of proving the property was lawfully obtained. Because Alabama’s law enforcement agencies are not required to report the property they seize, we do not know the scope of the problem. But, if Alabama law enforcement agencies’ use of the federal asset forfeiture program is any measure, the problem is huge. Between 2000 and 2013 Alabama law enforcement agencies seized over $75 million dollars in property, and none of that required a warrant or indictment, much less a criminal conviction. Law enforcement should not be put in a position where they appear to value funding their budget over the protection of individual rights.

 The Alabama legislature must pass five basic reforms:

  1. Require law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction before allowing a forfeiture to proceed. Requiring the government to first prove that the individual whose property was taken actually committed a crime and then prove that the property seized was the product of that crime will place the burden back where it belongs – on the government. This straightforward step would protect Alabamian’s property rights while better ensuring that law enforcement are focused on public safety, not generating revenue.
  2. Require an accounting of the property seized under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture program. Alabama’s program currently resembles a black hole because there’s no requirement that law enforcement report what they’ve taken from the public. It’s time for Alabama to being sunlight to its civil asset forfeiture program.
  3. Require the state to distribute forfeiture proceeds to its general fund budget instead of allowing law enforcement agencies to keep it. This reform would help remove the profit motive from this practice. Such reforms should be welcomed and supported by anybody who believes that in the eyes of the law, we are all innocent until proven guilty.
  4. Ensure individuals facing a civil asset forfeiture proceeding have access to quality, adequately funded counsel regardless of their ability to pay. Currently, Alabamians seeking to defend their property in court must hire their own attorney. Those who cannot afford an attorney must either represent themselves in court or give up their property. Access to justice is a cornerstone of our judicial system, and no Alabamian should be forced to defend their property without an attorney.  
  5. Prohibit Alabama law enforcement from using the federal civil asset forfeiture program unless it includes the requirements outlined above. The federal forfeiture plan should not be a loophole for law enforcement to bypass state policies designed to prevent abuse of this practice. Alabama should bar its law enforcement from participating in the federal program until these basic protections are in place.
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