This spring, lawmakers in Alabama looked set to reform civil asset forfeiture. However, even though politicians and interest groups across the political spectrum supported reform, the reforms failed.
The libertarian Institute for Justice rates Alabama’s current civil asset forfeiture laws as “among the worst in the nation.” Civil asset forfeiture is the process where law enforcement can seize an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, a criminal conviction is not required before property is seized. In Alabama, profits from civil asset forfeiture are used to fund law enforcement. This has led to accusations of abuse and “policing for profit.”
National opinion polling shows 84 percent of Americans oppose seizure of property from individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. Alabama State Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Pike Road) said the state legislature shares this dissatisfaction. “If you go interview legislators one by one, it’s hard to find one who will defend our civil asset forfeiture law. There is very little debate on whether the current law is being abused.”
In January, two state representatives, Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) cosponsored legislation which would have transformed civil asset forfeiture procedures. Firstly, the new legislation would require a criminal conviction before property could be taken. Secondly, local law enforcement would no longer receive proceeds from federal forfeitures. Finally, the legislation would have set up an annual report on how proceeds from forfeiture were used.
Law enforcement agencies pushed back against the Orr-Mooney bill. In February, I reported on an opinion piece written by District Attorney Brian McVeigh and Sheriff Dave Sutton where they argued Orr-Mooney would “gut what is an effective crime-fighting tool.”
McVeigh and Sutton further argued that policing for profit was not a negative thing. “What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in [drug ring and stolen property] operations if they don’t receive proceeds to cover their costs?”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice published a report in January which analyzed civil asset seizures by the police in 2015. They showed that law enforcement agencies were awarded $2.2 million in 827 cases. In 25 percent of those cases, the owner of the seized property was neither charged with a crime nor even linked to one.
“They’ve admitted to policing for profit,” explained Alabama Appleseed’s executive director, Frank Knaack. “We’ve pointed out that they were not going after bad guys at all.”
Nonetheless, law enforcement remained unconvinced a major revision of civil asset forfeiture procedures were necessary. Instead, groups from across the political spectrum met to negotiate a deal they could all agree on. This revised version of Orr-Mooney focused on requiring transparency.
Artur Davis of the Institute for Justice, who was involved in the negotiations said, “It was clear we needed to seek a narrower bill—not to repeal forfeiture but require an extensive amount of detailed reporting of the forfeiture activity that goes on.”
In March, senators debated this revised bill. However, Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) added an amendment requiring law enforcement to prove seized items had been used or had been intended to be used in a criminal offense.
As this amendment had not been agreed on by all parties during the negotiation process, law enforcement became unhappy with the bill. “To inject other issues after negotiations have been completed is bad form. It’s bad faith,” said Davis. “Not surprisingly, law enforcement felt they were blindsided, and they withdrew their support.” Without time to renegotiate before the end of the session, the bill failed.
Smitherman remains optimistic about reform of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama. “We’ll get back at it next session,” he says. Davis is more sanguine: “It’s entirely possible in the way this ended, that it could be difficult for good faith negotiations to begin again.”
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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.
Image of Alabama State House by DXR.