After the Supreme Court ruled last month that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applied to states—essentially outlawing excessive police seizures—lawmakers in Alabama are moving forward with reforms of civil asset forfeiture in the state.
Civil asset forfeiture is the legal process where police can seize an individual’s property, cash, or any other assets if they are suspected of being used in a crime. In Alabama there are no requirements for law enforcement to report seizures, so the scale of civil asset forfeitures in the state is hard to assess. Additionally, in order to take an individual’s assets, law enforcement only needs to demonstrate the property’s involvement in a crime to the court’s “reasonable satisfaction.” This is a far lower bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” that is required in criminal cases.
“You can be someone who doesn’t have a bank account,” said Carla Crowder, the Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “You’re driving down the road. You get pulled over in a traffic incident, and the police find $1,500 in the car because you’ve just cashed a paycheck. When the officer sees the cash, he or she can take it. The police are taking small amounts of cash and property and not having to prove people were involved in a crime.”
While last month’s Supreme Court decision addressed situations where the value of civil asset forfeiture seizures was not proportionate to the crime—in the case they considered, Tyson Timbs’ $42,000 vehicle was seized after he sold $400-worth of heroin—the majority of cash forfeitures in Alabama are small. The Southern Poverty Law Center examined 1,000 cases of civil asset forfeiture in the case and found that the average amount seized was $1,372.
In Alabama, 100 percent of the proceeds from seizures is retained by law enforcement, providing an incentive for police to seize property. “This is an example where police agencies—instead of pursuing fairness and justice—are pursuing profits,” explained Crowder. “That’s just not how the criminal justice system should work. The system should be designed to keep communities safer and treat people fairly, not for police officers to make a profit off of innocent citizens’ property.”
Last year, an attempt by lawmakers to reform civil asset forfeiture in the state failed in the face of opposition from both law enforcement and the state’s district attorney. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) cosponsored legislation which would have required a criminal conviction before assets could be permanently seized. Had it passed, the legislation would also have stopped law enforcement receiving the proceeds of forfeitures.
This year, Mooney has partnered with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Alabama Districts Attorneys Association to build a system to track civil asset forfeitures in the states. On March 1, district attorneys began collecting civil asset forfeiture data for later submission to the new tracking database.
This year, lawmakers are expected to introduce a bill similar to the earlier one. Mooney believes the database is an important first step. “I can’t overstate the importance to lawmakers of having accurate, reliable information as we look legislatively at civil asset forfeitures,” explained Mooney. “This new system will help paint a clearer picture of what is actually going on in the state.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.