Civil asset forfeiture is a system by which the law enforcement seizes property it suspects was connected to crime. Though it was sold to the public as a way of taking ill-gotten gains from drug kingpins, our research shows that much of the time, it’s used to take small amounts from vulnerable people.
In 2018, we examined 1,110 cases in 14 counties, representing 70% of the 1,591 civil asset forfeiture cases filed in Alabama in 2015. The median amount taken was less than $1400. It costs more than that to hire a lawyer to fight to get the money back from the state. As a result, many people from whom small amounts are seized never contest the seizures in court.
Since our report was published, Alabama has passed two reforms intended to rein in abusive practices. In 2019, the lawmakers voted to require law enforcement agencies to create a public database showing what they were taking via forfeiture. In 2021, they passed a law that among other things set thresholds for the value of property that could be taken via civil forfeiture. Cash worth less than $250 and vehicles worth less than $5,000 can no longer be civilly forfeited.
But those thresholds would not have helped Mary Thomas, a 75-year-old woman who was convicted of a felony after a confidential informant told police that she was a recreational cannabis user. The police raid traumatized Thomas, who remembered police rifling through the pockets of the housecoat where she kept spending money and taking everything they found.
Thomas experienced that as theft, but what had in fact happened was a civil seizure. Police claimed the $378 they took was connected to illegal activity. Thomas was not aware she could contest the seizure – and even if she had known, it would have cost her more to retain a lawyer to fight the state than the $378 that was in question.
In the end, the state kept her paycheck without ever lifting a finger to demonstrate the cash it seized was in any way connected to criminal activity. Thomas never saw that money again.