On August 15, 1822, the brig Palmyra, an armed privateer commissioned by the King of Spain, was captured on the high seas by the USS Grampus. Accused of violating the 1819 Piracy Act, the Palmyra was sent to South Carolina to await judgment.
Though the crew was “guilty of plunder,” no law existed under which its members could be punished, so no one was convicted of any crime. The Spanish government, claiming its flag had been “insulted and attacked” and its property stolen, demanded that the Palmyra be returned to its owner.
The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the ship was properly forfeited, ruling that it was permissible for the state to take property that had facilitated criminal activity, despite the fact that no person was convicted of a crime.
Nearly two centuries later, law enforcement agencies across America are using a process known as civil asset forfeiture to take and keep billions of dollars in currency, vehicles, houses, land and weapons – even items like TVs – under the same legal reasoning. This property is taken not from pirates who lie beyond the jurisdictional reach of the United States, but rather from ordinary people who can easily be taken into custody, charged and tried if the state believes they committed a crime.
Today’s use of civil asset forfeiture, in other words, is unmoored from its historical justification of imposing penalties when authorities could not convict a person suspected of crime.
This lack of a link to the original use of civil forfeiture raises numerous questions, including whether it is the wrong process to meet the state’s otherwise legitimate interests of confiscating the fruit of crimes.
To track the property seized and forfeited under civil asset forfeiture laws in the state, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center reviewed court records in the 1,110 cases led in 14 counties in 2015, comprising approximately 70 percent of all such cases filed statewide that year.
In effect, civil asset forfeiture has become a money-making venture for law enforcement, to varying degrees among the thousands of jurisdictions.
Everyone agrees that no one should be allowed to profit from criminal activity.
But there is also widespread agreement across the ideological spectrum that civil asset forfeiture laws violate the most fundamental tenets of due process in our democracy and are thus manifestly unfair to property owners. In addition, they create the potential for abuse and erode trust in law enforcement.
It’s time for Alabama to end this abusive practice.