Today the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance SB 213 (Senator Orr), which would end civil asset forfeiture in Alabama.
“Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to 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. “It turns the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head and has no place in Alabama.”
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 state and federal programs, Alabama law enforcement received over $5 million in 2015 alone, and none of that required an indictment, much less a criminal conviction.
“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,” Knaack said. “In 2015 alone, local and state government entities kept at least $670,000 from property owners who were never even charged with a crime.”
Under current law, the government is not required to report what they have taken to a centralized database. In order for Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center to gather data for the report, Forfeiting Your Rights, the groups had to write a computer program, purchase thousands of dollars worth of court records, and spend hundreds of hours reviewing them one by one. In addition, 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.
“Our democracy cannot exist without a transparent and accountable government,” said Knaack. “Yet, to gather just a snippet of the abuses happening under the program we had to spend thousands of dollars for court records and spend hundreds of hours analyzing those records. That is the opposite of a transparent and accountable government.”
SB 213 would:
Require that the forfeiture process occur within the criminal case.
Protect innocent property owners.
Bring transparency to the forfeiture process.
Restrict the ability to abuse the federal forfeiture programs.
“This legislation is a win-win,” Knaack said. “Criminal forfeiture leaves in place the tools law enforcement needs to hold those who commit crimes accountable and places the burden back where it belongs – on the state.”
SB 213 now moves to the Senate floor.
The Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center report on civil asset forfeiture can be found here: www.alabamaappleseed.org/repor