On civil asset forfeiture, Alabama Legislature takes initial steps toward progress

Alabamians deserve a legal system that respects their rights to due process. That includes not taking someone’s property without compensation unless there is clear and convincing evidence the property is linked to a crime. But under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture practices, people can lose their possessions – without a conviction or even a criminal charge – at the hands of law enforcement agencies that stand to make money off what they take.

Abuses of civil asset forfeiture disproportionately harm people of color, as Arise’s fact sheet details. Strong public sentiment favoring reform has spurred the Legislature toward change early in this year’s regular session.

SB 191, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would make the state’s civil asset forfeiture practices more just and equitable. The bill would help protect innocent Alabamians from having their belongings taken and sold by the government. And it is moving quickly at the State House.

Walk the plank: The origins and growth of civil asset forfeiture

The original historical purpose of civil asset forfeiture was to combat piracy. In its modern form, the practice arose to help law enforcement seize the assets of international drug kingpins in cases where American laws couldn’t reach the organization’s leaders.

But today, civil asset forfeiture has grown to a far greater size and scope. When Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center reviewed 1,110 civil asset forfeiture cases filed across the state in 2015, they found that the amount seized in half of them was less than $1,400. That’s more than a month’s pay for a minimum-wage worker – but far less than it would cost to hire a lawyer to challenge the seizure in court. In Alabama, civil asset forfeiture often acts as a tool to persecute people who can’t afford to fight back.

How SB 191 would promote justice

SB 191 would stop abuses of this practice. The bill would require a criminal conviction before law enforcement could seize someone’s property. Under current law, all the state must show is that property was more likely than not connected to a crime. They then can seize that property, including a household’s only vehicle, even if the owner is never charged or convicted.

Under SB 191, misdemeanor drug possession and other minor crimes would no longer allow police to take property. That’s because the bill would require a felony conviction to subject property to forfeiture.

SB 191 would provide some minor, reasonable exceptions to the conviction requirement. For example, the state still could seize property from the estate of a person who dies before conviction. Courts also could waive the conviction requirement for a defendant who receives immunity or a lighter sentence for a felony offense in exchange for testimony or assistance in an investigation. And the property of offenders who are deported or flee the state while on bail would remain subject to forfeiture as well.

Orr’s bill would provide protections to innocent people whose property is used in commission of a crime. Cases across the country have shown many law enforcement agencies are willing to take property even when owners had no involvement in or knowledge of the crime.

SB 191 also would fix two more problems of civil asset forfeiture. First, the bill would increase government accountability by publishing the disposition of seized property on a public website. Second, the bill would forbid local law enforcement to seek “adoption” of cases by federal agencies, a practice that can allow them to sidestep state protections against civil asset forfeiture.

Rapid progress amid determined opposition

SB 191 has moved quickly so far. Orr introduced the bill Tuesday, and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved it Wednesday. The Senate debated SB 191 on Thursday but did not vote on it.

A Senate floor vote could come as soon as Tuesday, April 9. But many district attorneys, whose offices get money from forfeitures, opposed reform last year and likely will work hard against this bill.

The public overwhelmingly supports reining in the abuses of civil asset forfeiture. So call and write your state legislators to tell them that Alabama needs civil asset forfeiture reform. They need to know that the people they represent want real change now.