On July 24, the state of Arkansas put an end to civil asset forfeiture in almost all cases in Arkansas. The bill, sponsored by State Senator Bart Hester, received a unanimous vote from the Arkansas Legislature and was signed into law in March earlier this year. Now, it has taken effect.
The new law prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from seizing property unless the property owner is convicted of a criminal offense. This law will help to deal with the injustice often found in cases of Civil Asset Forfeiture.
Civil Asset Forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to legally seize property and other assets of a person suspected of committing a crime. It essentially involves a lawsuit against the actual property itself. Therefore, the ‘defendant’ (i.e. the property) can be taken by the state regardless of whether the property owner is convicted or not. This is different from Criminal Asset Forfeiture, which requires the property owner to be guilty beyond doubt before the police seize the property.
Civil Asset Forfeitures are often employed when police are dealing with suspected drug or other organized criminal activities. The police need only to show that there is some preponderance of evidence that the property was involved in illegal activities. Once seized, the law enforcement agencies sell the property at auction, and the proceeds are often used to fund the agencies.
These seizures can be quite significant. In 2018, the Michigan State Police seized $15 million in property and cash. Similarly, in Missouri, police took more than $9 million in assets, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. There are countless more numbers like these. However, not all of these numbers represent property taken from convicted persons.
Unlike the case of a criminal conviction, the owners of these seized properties do not get a court-appointed attorney. This is because their cases are civil rather than criminal. Due to this difference, owners of seized property have to pay for an attorney themselves.
Many people can’t afford to enlist legal aid and end up losing their property altogether. For example, in Iowa, police seized at least $24 million worth of assets between 2010 and 2017, the majority of which was not contested.
Many states have passed laws to try and curtail the practices involved in civil asset forfeiture by defining how and where the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture can be used. However, staunch supporters of this practice have found a way around that too through the Equitable Sharing program. Under this program, local law enforcement agencies can pass off cases to the federal government, bypassing any state-level restrictions.
To combat this, the State of Arkansas had already taken steps to withdraw from the program. Their current law prohibits cases from being passed or transferred to the federal government unless they have judicial approval. Furthermore, the cases won’t get judicial approval unless the cases are better suited to the federal government.
However, even these restrictions can be avoided with the help of a compliant judge, according to the Tenth Amendment Center. In order to avoid loopholes, the state of Arkansas would need to withdraw entirely from federal equitable sharing programs or take a similarly drastic measure, some experts say.