The Alabama House last week passed SB 191, which is designed to improve transparency in civil asset forfeiture cases in the state. Having passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, the bill now moves to Governor Kay Ivey’s docket for her to approve.
Civil asset forfeiture is the legal process where police may take possession of an individual’s property—such as a car, home, or cash—if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, criminal charges are not required for property to be taken, let alone a criminal conviction.
“Hundreds of Alabamians lose cash, cars, and other property under this practice every year,” said Robyn Hyden of the nonprofit Alabama Arise. “Many of them are never convicted of a crime—or even charged with one. And many people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to challenge these seizures in court.”
In October 2016, for example, Trey Crozier was reversing his car, a Mercury Sable, out of a driveway in the town of Castleberry in southern Alabama. Two police officers approached and searched him and his passenger. The officers had stopped the man for backing out of a driveway improperly.
The man was never charged with a crime. Nor was he charged with the traffic offense he had been stopped for. Nonetheless, the police officers towed his car and took $1,750 in case they found. Although they later returned his car after he paid a $500 impound fee, police retained his cash. The then-police chief, Tracy Hawsey, claimed in a series of Facebook posts that the man’s cash was drug money. The money was never returned.
The man was one of many who were stopped in this way in Castleberry. The town’s former mayor, J.B. Jackson, explained that these aggressive seizures were designed primarily to bring in revenue to the town.
“We didn’t have much [money],” explained the former mayor. “So Hawsey come to me and said, ‘There is a lot of crime in this town and a lot of drugs coming through this town.’ So he said, ‘why don’t we set up a court system to get some money coming in?’”
If it becomes law, SB 191 would set up a public-facing website and a system to track seizures in the state. This bill, according to Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, will offer “unprecedented transparency” and will additionally “publicly identify all asset forfeiture dollars and expenses by separating them into audited accounts with detailed individual line items.”
Emily Early of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Action Fund feels the new bill does not go far enough. “It’s not enough for the actors who profit from civil asset forfeiture to simply report what they take from Alabamians,” she explained. “That’s because the practice of civil asset forfeiture is, at its core, wrong.”
Although improved reporting and transparency is to be welcomed, the reforms initiated by SB 191 would not have helped the man. The law does nothing to address the number of seizures or attempt to reduce them.
The original version of SB 191 contained the requirement that a felony conviction would have to be secured before seized property could be forfeited and another requirement that the state would have to meet a higher standard of proof than the “reasonable satisfaction” currently required. These were both removed before the bill was voted on.
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