MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Courts in 14 Alabama counties awarded $2.2 million to law enforcement agencies through civil asset forfeiture actions filed in 2015 – and in a quarter of the 1,100 cases, law enforcement sought to keep property seized from people who were never even charged with a crime, according to a report released today by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The study – Forfeiting Your Rights – paints a disturbing picture of a legal process that was once intended to strip illicit profits from drug kingpins but has since evolved into a revenue-generating scheme for law enforcement, one that is now being widely used against people accused of low-level crimes, particularly marijuana offenses, or no crime at all.

Civil asset forfeiture has been widely condemned across the ideological spectrum as an abusive practice that deprives Alabamians of their due process and property rights. The 1,100 cases examined for the report represent 70 percent of all such cases filed in Alabama in 2015.

“In Alabama, law enforcement can take and keep your cash, your car or your house – even if you are never charged with a crime,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Civil asset forfeiture turns the basic American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head. To make matters worse, law enforcement can keep and spend up to 100 percent of the proceeds of forfeited property, no strings attached. It’s a system that incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.”

Two Republican lawmakers today filed legislation that would, among other reforms, eliminate civil forfeiture by linking future forfeiture actions to criminal proceedings.

Under state law, law enforcement agencies can seize property on the mere suspicion that it was either involved in a crime or derived from certain criminal activity. A civil court then decides whether the agencies involved can keep it. In these court proceedings, while the initial legal burden falls on the prosecutor, the low standard of proof means that the property owner carries the burden of proving the property is “innocent” of the alleged crime.

“It’s time for Alabama lawmakers to place the burden where it belongs – on the government,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Civil asset forfeiture is broken beyond repair. We urge legislators to ensure that only people convicted of a crime can lose their property through criminal forfeiture and to bring transparency and accountability to the forfeiture process. These reforms would protect due process rights and hold those who commit crimes accountable.”

Though rooted in centuries-old admiralty law, civil asset forfeiture gained widespread use in the 1980s and the following decades as part of the War on Drugs. Today, however, drug kingpins are rarely the target. The report found that in half of the cases examined where cash was seized, the amount of cash was $1,372 or less. Because that amount is often less than the typical cost of hiring an attorney to challenge the forfeiture, many cases go uncontested. In fact, in 52 percent of all cases filed across Alabama in 2015, the property owner did not challenge the forfeiture in court.

The original justification for civil asset forfeiture is further undermined by the fact that in 25 percent of the cases, the individual whose property was seized was never charged with a crime.  And in 18 percent of the cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia.

Further, based on both the limited data on race in this study and interviews with lawyers who represent clients in civil forfeiture cases in Alabama, there appear to be racial disparities at work. The report found that in 64 percent of the cases that involved criminal charges, the defendant was African-American, even though African Americans comprise only about 27 percent of Alabama’s population.

The legislation introduced today by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) would require that the forfeiture process occur within the criminal case; ensure that innocent property owners can quickly challenge the seizure of their property; require annual, centralized reporting of all seizures and forfeitures and what government agencies spend forfeiture proceeds on; and prohibit state and local government entities from receiving proceeds from federal forfeiture actions through what is known as the “equitable sharing” program.

“No criminal should be able to profit off of their crime,” Orr said. “Our laws must also protect innocent Alabama property owners. Currently, Alabama law does not provide those basic protections. Our legislation is a win-win: It ensures that law enforcement can hold the bad guys accountable and protects the rights of innocent Alabama property owners.”

Mooney added, “Individual liberty and property rights are not adequately protected under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Our legislation strikes an equitable balance between individual rights and public safety. It preserves the ability of law enforcement to seize and keep the fruits of crime while restoring the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty.”

The report profiles Alabamians whose lives have been upended through their experience with civil asset forfeiture.

Dothan resident and car dealership owner James Vibbert had $25,000 seized from his bank account when prosecutors claimed that another man had used drug profits to buy vehicles from him. Even after a judge found Vibbert innocent and an assistant district attorney apologized for the charges, he had to hire a lawyer to get the money back in the civil proceedings.  

“I am finally back on my feet after the several months of court proceedings and years of trying to rebuild my reputation as a trustworthy businessman,” Vibbert said. “Even after I was found innocent, I still had to hire an attorney to get my money back from the government. The system is unjust and unfair, and nearly ruined my life.”

In addition to the $2.2 million awarded to 70 government entities in 14 counties in cases initiated in 2015, the report found that law enforcement agencies in the state gained an additional $3.1 million from forfeiture cases handled by the U.S. government.

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Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to work to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City. For more information, visit www.alabamaappleseed.org.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.

 

by Leah Nelson, Alabama Appleseed Researcher

It was a “harebrained theory” from the start. That’s what a former Houston County assistant district attorney with knowledge of the case against James Vibbert says, anyway.

“[B]ut we didn’t dismiss cases in the DA’s office when Doug Valeska was there. You weren’t allowed to, unless he wanted to dismiss the case,” the former insider said. “‘Try it and lose,’ was pretty much what we were told.”

So that’s what they did. And Vibbert, a small business owner who faced criminal charges and the attempted civil forfeiture of more than $25,000 that he needed to keep his business running, paid the price.

James “Jamey” Vibbert is the unlikely protagonist of an object lesson about the way civil asset forfeiture can be abused by ambitious law enforcement agents and unscrupulous prosecutors. Past president of the Dothan/Houston County Rotary Club, former member of the board of directors and three-time “Ambassador of the Year” for the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, a man whose Facebook “likes” include “Conservatives Against a Liberal Agenda,” he personifies what many in Alabama’s fiercely conservative Wiregrass region might consider an ideal. He’s a small business owner and entrepreneur who got his start in healthcare systems and payroll solutions before turning to the sale of high-end imported cars; a Huntsville, Ala. native and Crimson Tide fan with two adult children and a young daughter he dotes on.

Sitting in the back office of Bavarian Imports, the dealership he opened after fallout from his disastrous encounter with Houston County’s civil asset forfeiture machine forced him to close his previous shop, Vibbert struggles to find words to describe his experience.  

“It just tarnished. It just knocked it off,” he says. “If it had even been a little cloudy, something that I may have done, that I crossed the line a little bit, maybe I deserved it. No. I didn’t cross the line a single bit. I didn’t do the first thing that was wrong, not even close. That’s what’s so hard about this, it was nothing.”

But it was also everything.

It all started in 2015 when a young man with cash to spare started buying cars from Vibbert’s dealership, CSI Auto Sales. The buyer didn’t have a license, but car dealers often sell cars to individuals who cannot legally drive them – for instance, disabled persons who buy cars that will be driven by others, or elderly individuals who have let their licenses lapse and are buying cars for children or grandchildren.

The first time he bought a car from Vibbert, the buyer said he wanted the title in the name of a person he said was his girlfriend’s mother. Vibbert gave him the paperwork. He also advised the buyer to find a trustworthy lienholder to maintain financial control of any vehicle he bought but didn’t control the title to – that way, if he and his girlfriend got in a fight, the lienholder could stop her from making off with the car. The buyer thanked Vibbert, and did just that.

Not long after that, the buyer was arrested for an alleged drug crime. Alleging they had been purchased with drug money, Lt. Demetrius Bogan of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency apparently looked into having the cars forfeited and learned that the titles were not in the buyer’s name and the cars had third-party lienholders.

In 2004, Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska sent a memo to all law enforcement personnel under his jurisdiction, telling them that his office expected 20 percent of the proceeds of any item seized via civil asset forfeiture, a legal process by which property believed to be connected to a crime can be “prosecuted” and become the property of the state. The memo, which Alabama Appleseed obtained on Jan. 11 through an open records request asking for all documentation about the Houston and Henry County District Attorney’s civil asset forfeiture policy, states that law enforcement agencies are responsible for paying off any liens on forfeited vehicles, and warning them to look into liens before seeking forfeiture.

When Bogan checked the title on the two vehicles he seized from Vibbert’s buyer, he discovered that it would cost his employer as much as the cars were worth – about $25,000 – to have them forfeited. Rather than let things go, he began to investigate  Vibbert. The prosecutor struggled to charge him: as he  told the Dothan Eagle, he “kind of had to do some serious research in the statutes to figure out exactly how it violated the law. … It’s the first time that I know of we’ve ever charged anybody under these provisions.”

The prosecutor likened Vibbert’s alleged crime to money laundering. “The vehicles were being bought with drug money, and [Vibbert] knew they were being bought with drug money,” he told the Eagle. “He’s falsifying titles to protect a drug dealer’s vehicles from government seizure.”

But Vibbert didn’t know. In his years as a car salesman, he’s had customers pay him in cash and title the car to third parties for any number of legitimate reasons – as an example, he cites a Mobile-based hairdresser who used the cash he received in tips to buy a flashy car for his mother. He also makes a practice of advising young people buying cars for their significant others to add lienholders, to protect the buyer from losing their property due to a bad breakup. All kinds of people buy high-end used automobiles, and Vibbert has learned not to judge or make assumptions without good cause. He just warns his buyers to be careful.

Unfortunately, the system that prosecuted him hadn’t learned that lesson – least of all former Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska, who earned a bar complaint from a former Alabama Supreme Court justice and a national reputation for abusing his power before retiring in 2016.

According to a former prosecutor who worked in his office, Valeska refused to allow dismissal of Vibbert’s case even when it became clear that the charges were baseless, and the forfeiture proceedings unwinnable.

Vibbert’s first clue that something was amiss came when he noticed that about $25,000 was missing from his bank account. He called his bank, which said it would look into what had happened and get back to him. Two days later, Bogan showed up at his dealership and demanded to talk with him.

Vibbert was at a car show in Tallahassee when his wife Kayla called and put Bogan on the phone. Vibbert recalls the conversation vividly.

“He said ‘I’ve got some advice for you,’ he says. ‘You better leave right there, and you better come back to Alabama, and you better hope that you don’t get pulled over by the police there, ‘cause I’m gonna let you set in jail for 10 days till I come and get you.’ And he says, ‘Oh by the way,’ he says, ‘I’m the one that took that money out of your account.”  

Bogan had gained control of the money under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow individual police officers to seize cash and other items that they believe are connected to criminal activity.

Most commonly, cash is seized when it’s found in a vehicle or home together with drugs or other alleged evidence of criminal activity. Forfeiture is then sought in civil court, where Alabama law requires prosecutors to prove to a judge’s “reasonable satisfaction” – a nebulous standard that is approximately equivalent to “more likely than not” – that it was the fruits of, or connected to, a crime.

Unusually, Vibbert’s was taken from his bank account, because Bogan and the District Attorney’s office believed it might be connected to drug dealing in some fashion.

Ultimately, a judge disagreed – but not before Vibbert lost his business, and, in many ways, his sense of himself as a pillar of his small, conservative, close-knit Wiregrass community.

There was a flaw in the first indictment against Vibbert, so the judge threw it out the day the trial was set to begin. The District Attorney’s office charged Vibbert again, arrested him again, and insisted on proceeding to trial.

In the meantime, Vibbert hired attorneys and set about attempting to get his money back. It couldn’t happen fast enough. He had intended to use the $25,000 the state seized to purchase new inventory, and now that couldn’t happen. Lenders suspended lines of credit. People stopped buying from him; some even backed out of partially completed transactions after the Dothan Eagle featured a story describing the charges against him. Vibbert’s payroll solutions and workers compensation company, which predated his car dealership, lost about 50 percent of its contracts because no one wanted to trust their finances to an alleged money launderer. Overall, he estimates the ordeal set him back about $300,000 in lost business and expenses.

The criminal trial was over almost before it started. Vibbert’s lawyers took the unusual step of requesting a bench trial, meaning the judge decided the case instead of a jury. The prosecutor’s case fell apart: at one point, the judge interrupted to observe that he himself had recently purchased a car, titled it to his son, and had the title sent to his own home address rather than his son’s – facts similar to those on which the charges against Vibbert were based. “Is that falsifying a title?” the judge asked the prosecutor.

“Possibly,” came the reply. “I would need a little more information.”

In the end, the judge ruled in Vibbert’s favor. In addition to finding him not guilty of all the charges against him, the judge made a clear statement about what he thought of the forfeiture proceedings.

“The Court is not willing to extend forfeiture laws to businesses who are not involved in the drug trade. Otherwise, you are going to draw in car dealers, rental car companies, etc. There would have to be more, a pattern of [sic] practice for the car dealer bending the law to assist drug dealers. This is but one example. But one example. And I am not sure that Mr. Vibbert fits that,” he said.

He warned Vibbert not to sell that particular buyer any more cars, and sent him home.

Off the record, the prosecutor apologized to Vibbert and expressed relief that the proceeding was over. That was January 2016.

Vibbert started to put his life back together. Based on the judge’s words, he was sure his money would be returned to him any day, but months passed, and he received no check. On March 25, 2016, his lawyer sent a letter to Valeska. He observed that other individuals associated with the case – including the buyer, who in addition to allegedly participating in a title fraud scheme was also allegedly in possession of a large quantity of methamphetamine when Bogan stopped him – were not charged with crimes, while “the State and Agent Bogan chose to pursue the rare and speculative charges against Vibbert.” He noted that Vibbert’s bond – a total of $50,000 over the course of two arrests – was shockingly high given the charges and the fact that Vibbert had no prior criminal history.

“It is my opinion that the motivation for pursuing the charges and the civil forfeiture against Vibbert was unfortunately a desire to take his money,” he wrote. “I believe it is now clear that the State has a duty to cease this proceeding.”

Valeska disagreed, and took several more months and a judge’s order to force the state to return Vibbert’s money. He lost about a third of it to attorney fees, and used the rest to reinvest in his foundering businesses.

Things are getting better, but they’re still bad. “It’s very difficult for me today to call on companies in this area and get them to do business with me,” Vibbert says. “My competitors, the first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Let me pull up this thing on the internet here. He launders money.’”

“The internet,” he says, “will never go away.”

Though he’s back on his feet, Vibbert’s life was permanently changed by the experience. An extroverted, highly social man his whole life, he’s withdrawn to a back office to avoid problems with customers who still associate his face with alleged criminal activity. He and his family rarely attend church anymore, and he’s withdrawn from many neighborhood and social activities. He would like to have the record of his arrest expunged, but he dreads going to the local jail to get fingerprinted (a required part of the expungement process), fearful that someone will see him there and assume he’s been arrested again.

“It’s still a nightmare. It hasn’t ended. You would think that it would end, but the problem you have is, you’ve got people who just don’t know the truth, and they assume, ‘ok, it’s this.’ And I worked so hard to build what I had,” Vibbert says. “And the thing is, how they can do that, and get away with it? And they drug me through it. When they finally found out the truth, they didn’t stop. They didn’t stop! It was just like, ‘We don’t care.’”

 

On Friday, January 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice v. Kenneth Ellis, et al., a lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.

Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income.  “This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes–not to line their own pockets,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.  “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”

In an effort to learn which sheriffs across the state have taken taxpayers’ money from jail food funds, and by how much they have profited, the plaintiff organizations have sent letters requesting copies of financial records showing how much each has kept for personal use.  Although certain sheriffs have responded in compliance with Alabama’s open records law, 49 sheriffs have refused for nearly half a year to comply with their clear obligations to produce the records, claiming instead that these documents are “personal.”  Some even recently responded to a request by the plaintiff organizations for records regarding any jail food obtained for free or shortly before its expiration date with the same argument.

“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” said Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed.  “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable.  Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights receives reports from people in Alabama jails that they are being provided inadequate or unhealthy meals, or food that is spoiled or contaminated.  In 2009, the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal.  During the preceding year, he had skimmed almost $100,000 from his office’s food money account.

It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms.  What is clear is that the sums can be significant.  One sheriff who did make such a report took more than $250,000 in “compensation” from “food provisions” in both 2016 and 2015.  Another sheriff was held in contempt of a federal court in 2017 after removing $160,000 from the jail food account and investing it in a used car dealership.

The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court.  The plaintiff organizations, represented by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jake Watson and Rebekah Keith McKinney of Huntsville, seek an order from the court that the records they have requested are public, and that the defendant sheriffs must produce them.  They have requested that their suit be consolidated with a related case filed by Sheriff Kenneth Ellis which is currently pending before the same court and involves the same question of public access to information about how sheriffs profit from jail food funds.

The complaint is available online here.

Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

The 2018 Alabama Regular Session will begin on January 9, 2018. The session is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. Because of upcoming elections, we expect the session to conclude early – possibly around March 27, 2018.

Below is a summary of key human rights issues we anticipate will be under active, serious deliberation by the legislature in 2018.

Fair Schools, Safe Communities Campaign Legislation

Our communities are safer and our schools fairer when laws and policies are grounded in evidence. It’s time for Alabama’s laws to reflect this common-sense approach.

To make our communities safer, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and begin to address the staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system, the Alabama legislature should:

End Civil Asset Forfeiture
We expect legislation to be introduced that would end civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), require transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • ​Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”

Reclassify Marijuana Possession
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reclassify possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense. We also expect legislation to be introduced that would create more appropriate weight thresholds for all marijuana offenses. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because Alabama’s current marijuana laws:

  • Turn otherwise law-abiding people into felons for merely possessing small quantities of marijuana;
  • ​Waste taxpayer money and misdirect law enforcement resources;
  • Disproportionately harm African Americans;
  • Needlessly ensnare Alabamians in the criminal justice system.

Ban the Box
We expect legislation to be introduced that would prohibit a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Under this law, the government employer would be permitted to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction was directly related to the job. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it would:

  • Help make our communities safer;
  • Better ensure a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society;
  • Protect Alabama from having to hire individuals whose criminal convictions are directly related to the job;
  • Help protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Stop Sending Children into the Adult Justice System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reduce the number of children sent into the adult justice system. Alabama Appleseed believes that no child should be referred to the adult justice system because children:

  • Are different than adults – they cannot vote, buy alcohol or tobacco, or gamble;
  • Have an increased aptitude for rehabilitation;
  • Are 36 times more likely to commit suicide when incarcerated in adult facilities when compared with children placed in juvenile facilities;
  • Are 34% more likely to be arrested again when compared with youth convicted of similar offenses in juvenile court.

Establish Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Programs
Legislation has been pre-filed that would allow for syringe services programs in counties where there is a high risk of an outbreak of blood-borne diseases or where an outbreak or epidemic already exists. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Creates a data-driven approach to reducing the harms associated with drug use;
  • Increases public safety by helping to reduce the number of contaminated needles on streets, on playgrounds, and in trash receptacles, thereby protecting children, law enforcement personnel, and other emergency responders, sanitation workers, and others from needle sticks;
  • Decreases rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission by reducing syringe sharing among injection drug users.​

Ensure a Holistic Approach to Criminal Justice Reform
Legislation may be introduced that would authorize the construction of new prisons. Alabama Appleseed opposes this approach because it does not address the underlying problems that fuel Alabama’s high incarceration rate. Any solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding must focus on the root issues:

  • Ending the war on drugs;
  • Prioritizing substance and mental health treatment programs;
  • Removing hurdles to reentry;
  • Expanding alternatives to incarceration.

Access to Justice Campaign Legislation

Equal justice under law requires a justice system that provides a level playing field for all Alabamians, regardless of one’s ability to pay. In order to achieve this, the state must ensure access to civil legal services, and protect the the fundamental right to counsel in criminal court.

To ensure more equal access to the courts, the Alabama legislature should:

Remove hurdle to low-income Alabamians seeking access to the courts 
Legislation has been pre-filed that would further provide for waiving the filing fee in a civil case due to the individual’s financial hardship. The legislation would specify that the pleading accompanying the statement of substantial hardship shall be considered filed on the date the statement of substantial hardship is filed with the court. The legislation would also specify that if the court finds that no hardship exists, the party shall have 30 days to submit payment. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Protects the rights of Alabamians;
  • Ensures greater access to the courts;
  • Create more clarity and uniformity throughout the civil justice system.

Additional Priority Legislation 

Reform Predatory Lending
We expect legislation to be introduced that would extend the loan period to 30 days for payday loans. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because:

  • Low-income borrowers face interest rates as high as 456% APR;
  • 30 percent of payday loan borrowers took out 12 payday loans or more according to the most recent annual data;
  • Payday borrowers paid payday lenders more than $107 million in fees in the most recent year alone.

Challenge Expansion of Alabama’s Broken Death Penalty System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would expand the list of death penalty-eligible crimes. Alabama Appleseed opposes any such legislation until Alabama’s capital punishment regime is reformed. We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Yet, over 10 years ago the American Bar Association published a report that found problems throughout Alabama’s death penalty process – from interactions with law enforcement at the beginning to the post-conviction process at the end. In fact, the concerns were so serious that the ABA report recommended a temporary moratorium on executions until the recommendations were implemented. The vast majority of those recommendations have still not been implemented. Alabama legislators should be focused on ensuring Alabama has a fair and accurate death penalty process, not expanding the class of people who can be executed under this flawed system.

In advance of the 2018 Alabama legislative session, panelists detail solutions to law enforcement’s unfair seizure of property.

Birmingham, AL – A diverse coalition of groups that oppose the law enforcement practice of seizing property from citizens without first obtaining a criminal conviction held an educational forum today, arguing that the Alabama State Legislature should outlaw the practice.

The organizations are making their case ahead of the 2018 Alabama legislative session, hoping to change current state law that allows the practice – also known as civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, Alabama’s law enforcement agencies are allowed to confiscate cash, vehicles and other private property on the mere suspicion that it was either involved in a crime or derived from criminal activity.

“In Alabama, law enforcement agencies can take your property even if you are never charged with a crime,” said panelist Frank Knaack, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. “You then have the burden to prove in court that your property is legally owned – that’s right, your property is guilty until proven innocent. To make matters worse, law enforcement are not required to report what they seize, how much they seize, and how they spend the proceeds. It’s a system that incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.”

Co-hosted by 11 diverse organizations and membership groups, panelists at the forum discussed the roots of civil asset forfeiture in the failed drug war, the problems of transparency, and the potential for abuse of the practice by law enforcement. Participants also discussed the prospect of necessary reforms in the Alabama legislative session of 2018.

The organizations want the Alabama legislature to strengthen the protection of individual property rights, eliminate the profit motive in the practice, and ensure transparency in reporting.

“Based on our analysis of the financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property, the government’s standard of proof to forfeit, and who bears the burden in innocent owner claims, Alabama earned a D-minus grade,” said panelist Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute of Justice. “No teacher or parent would be happy with that grade, and neither should Alabamians when their property and due process rights are at stake.”

Panelist Jordan Richardson, a senior policy analyst for the Charles Koch Institute, said policing should be about public safety, not profit. “States around the country, including Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, are moving in the right direction,” Richardson said. “Alabama should not risk getting left behind.”

Other states and the U.S. House of Representatives have recognized that civil asset forfeiture often does not align with the presumption of innocence and the respect for property rights that are bedrock principles of the United States.

“Civil asset forfeiture is unfair, undemocratic and un-American,” said Shay Farley, the Alabama Policy Counsel for the SPLC and moderator of the panel. “These laws turn the Constitutional provision that a person is innocent until proven guilty on its head. Luckily for Alabamians, the solutions are clear. The Alabama legislature can fix the problems in current practices by requiring criminal convictions before forfeiture of associated property, by placing proceeds from forfeiture into the state’s general fund instead of local law enforcement agency budgets, and by requiring public reporting of seizures and how the proceeds are spent.”

The forum, held at the Burr & Forman law firm, also referenced the stories of people who have been affected by civil asset forfeiture, including the family of Wayne Bonam. A few months after a drug task force in Covington County, Alabama, targeted Bonam in a raid, he passed away. Andalusia District Attorney Walt Merrell pressed on with civil asset forfeiture anyway, winning the case against Bonam’s home and his cash, and compounding the tragedy for his grieving family. The money from the seizure flowed into the task force, which was in the process of losing a federal grant.

In addition to Alabama Appleseed, the SPLC, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Institute of Justice, other co-sponsors of the forum included the Alabama Libertarian Party, the Alabama Policy Institute, the ACLU of Alabama, the American Constitutional Society – Alabama Chapter, the Drug Policy Alliance, Faith in Action Alabama, and the Federalist Society – Birmingham Lawyers Chapter.

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.

Montgomery, AL – Today the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) announced a plan to hire a project management team to construct new prison facilities and renovate existing facilities. This announcement follows unsuccessful attempts in 2016 and 2017 to pass prison construction legislation through the Alabama Legislature.

“Alabama has a choice – it can embrace evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase public safety and reduce the burden on taxpayers in other southern states, or double down on expensive and ineffective incarceration,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed.

Overincarceration is not unique to Alabama. In 2007, Texas projected that the state would need to construct new prisons at a cost of approximately $2 billion. It chose another direction: Instead of building new prisons, Texas focused on front-end reforms, including funding treatment and diversion programs, and back-end reforms, including capping parole caseloads and expanding halfway house space and in-prison treatment programs.  As a result, Texas is slated to close its eighth prison in six years. South Carolina followed a similar approach, resulting in the closure of six prisons since 2010. And, both Texas and South Carolina have seen substantial reductions in their crime rates.

“As our neighbors in Texas and South Carolina have shown us, by creating more appropriate punishments for low-level offenders and reinvesting a fraction of the money that would have been needed to build prisons in community-based rehabilitation programs, we can reduce the burden placed on our taxpayers without jeopardizing public safety,” said Knaack.

While the specific timeline for prison construction is unclear under the ADOC plan, past prison construction proposals allotted five years for completion.

“The options are clear – Alabama can spend the next five years building new prisons and locking in a reliance on incarceration and a massive corrections budget for a generation to come, or we can spend the next five years implementing the reforms executed in Texas and South Carolina, placing Alabama on the path to closing prisons and reducing the burden on our taxpayers,” Knaack said.

Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, regarding Governor Ivey’s decision to award $1.3 million to establish the Alabama Drug Enforcement Task Force:

“After more than 45 years of the War on Drugs, one thing is clear – we cannot prosecute our way out of drug use. Approximately one in every seven people in Alabama’s already overcrowded prisons are there because of a drug offense, yet drugs remain cheap and widely available. Doubling down on this failed strategy is an expensive and ineffective approach.

Alabamians would be much better served by redirecting money to treatment programs and other public health based responses that have been shown to reduce drug use and save lives. We urge Governor Ivey to reconsider her decision.”

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Appleseed today applauded the Alabama Senate’s vote to “ban the box” (SB 200) on state employment applications.

“Banning the box better ensures that Alabamians seeking state employment are judged on their merit, not their mistakes,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 650,000 individuals are released from prison every year. The DOJ has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities, one of which is finding and keeping a job.

“This legislation would help make our communities safer,” said Knaack. “Recidivism rates are reduced when individuals are able to successfully reenter their communities. By removing the criminal background box from state employment applications, individuals seeking state employment have an honest shot at securing a job. It’s a win-win – it provides people with a second chance to make an honest living and helps make our communities safer.”

SB 200 now moves to the House.

For additional information regarding SB 200, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

SB 200 ensures that the State of Alabama, its agencies, and its political subdivisions cannot ask a prospective employee if they have ever been arrested for or convicted of any crime, with certain exceptions. A state employer may ask a prospective employee about their criminal background, but only after a conditional offer of employment is made. A state employer may withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that is directly related to the job. SB 200 also establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal history.

Helps make our communities safer. Alabama has approximately 24,000 people in its prisons and another 13,000 in its jails. The vast majority of those individuals will be released and return to their communities. To reduce the recidivism rate, the U.S. Department of Justice has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities. One of these key elements is helping these individuals find and keep a job. This legislation is a first step toward realizing a key element to reducing recidivism and making our communities safer.

Better ensures a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society. Under current law, an otherwise fully qualified applicant can be denied employment long after they have completed their sentence. This practice erects counterproductive hurdles in front of individuals seeking to rebuild their lives and provide for their families. Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.

African Americans are disproportionately harmed by the criminal history background box on employment applications. Because African Americans are disproportionately caught up in our criminal justice system, they are disproportionately harmed when seeking employment. For example, even though African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans are more than four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama. Thus, those individuals will be disproportionately impacted when filling out a job application that includes a criminal history box. This bill offers an opportunity to begin to address the long-term consequences of a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms African Americans.

Protects Alabama from having to hire an individual whose criminal conviction is directly related to the job. Under this legislation a state employer would be permitted to withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that “is directly related to the position of employment sought.” For example, this provision protects a state employer from being forced to hire a convicted embezzler to keep its books.

Helps protect state employers from claims of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a guidance document for entities covered by Title VII, including state and local governments, to help eliminate unlawful discrimination in the employment hiring process. As outlined in the guidance document, an employer must show that the selection criteria use or selection procedures are “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Specifically related to an applicant’s criminal record, the guidance says that the individualized screening process should consider “at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job” or otherwise comply with the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. SB 200 establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal record, which will better protect state agencies from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

SB 200 is a win-win! It better ensures that Alabamians are judged on their merit, not their mistakes and protects state employers.