Intern, Center for Effective Justice
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Jamie Scherbeh | March 8, 2018
A practice that has upset many innocent citizen’s lives and makes promoting freedom and property rights more difficult, civil asset forfeiture, is under consideration for reform in Alabama.
In order to confiscate property under current law, law enforcement needs only to suspect that property in question is related to criminal activity. To make matters worse, there is a lack of transparency due to Alabama not requiring seized or forfeited possessions be documented or reported, even though up to 100% of the revenue from seized property goes to the agency performing the seizure. The implications of this are that law enforcement does not require proof of criminal activity to forfeit possessions from individuals, just suspicion; they do not need to report what was taken, the value of the items, or the reasons for confiscation; and agencies get to keep most or even all of the revenue the forfeited items bring.
This law was not meant to target criminals and the everyday man alike. At its conception, forfeiture was meant to punish major drug traffickers and prevent them from profiting from their “trade.” But this law is impacting normal, law-abiding citizens. Under its purview, taking an individual’s property, selling it, and bringing in all of the revenue to the local precinct—often without proving in court that an actual crime has occurred—is acceptable.
This impacts some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in states such as Alabama, where many of the citizens fall under the poverty level. Only 12 percent of civil seizures were challenged in court, but after court costs and expensive attorney fees, it is usually the case that the value of property seized is less than legal proceedings to get it back. Worse yet, law enforcement only has to prove to “reasonable satisfaction”—essentially, a preponderance of evidence—in court that the property might be from criminal activity. With repercussions such as these, it isn’t a surprise that 84 percent of Americans oppose forfeiting property before reaching a criminal conviction.
Fortunately, reform is on the horizon. SB213, proposed by State Sen. Orr, will alleviate much of the heartache currently experienced by Alabama residents. His bill will require a criminal conviction before forfeiting an asset. It will also require law enforcement to be more accountable to citizens by mandating that all seized property information be kept in a public, statewide database. This includes information such as the agency who confiscated the property, the value of confiscated items, the criminal offense that lead to the seizure, and the breakdown of where revenue collected from seizures go—whether it be to salaries or rehabilitation facilities. As of Tuesday, March 6th, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB213. A Senate vote has not yet been scheduled.
With civil asset forfeiture, there is punishment without prosecution. There is no “innocent until proven guilty”—only “guilty until the court says you aren’t.” You must prove your innocence, not government who must prove one’s guilt. It is a clear infringement on the personal freedom of what one can do with their possessions and under what circumstances.
With Alabama’s civil forfeiture law on its way toward reform, we should hope to see other states willing to follow.