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Research & Commentary: Alabama Working to Reform Its Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

January 17, 2018

In this Research & Commentary, Matthew Glans examines a new bill in Alabama that would reform the state's civil asset forfeiture laws.

In recent years, states have taken many steps toward limiting the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize property from criminal suspects without conclusive evidence a crime has been committed – a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture can occur without bringing criminal charges against those whose assets have been seized.

The standard of proof required for seizure differs from state to state. Analysts at the nonpartisan Institute for Justice have given the State of Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws a grade of D-, one of the lowest grades in the country. In Alabama, the government is typically required to demonstrate to the court’s “reasonable satisfaction” that the property is related to criminal activity; this standard is essentially equal to the preponderance of the evidence standard used in civil lawsuits.

After property is seized, Alabama law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds, and those seeking to reclaim their property bear the burden of proving their innocence, unless the property at issue is real property, like a home. These problems are compounded by the fact there is no way to measure the extent to which Alabama’s law enforcement agencies use civil forfeiture, because Alabama law does not require law enforcement agencies to track or publicly report their forfeitures or expenditures. This creates a lack of transparency or accountability and creates an incentive to seize property.

Since 2014, 24 states have comprehensively reformed their forfeiture laws, with 14 states now requiring a criminal conviction before assets are seized.

Fortunately, Alabama is also now considering major reforms to its civil asset forfeiture laws that would address many of these issues. The Alabama Forfeiture Accountability and Integrity Reform (FAIR) Act would both require a conviction before property can be seized and the creation of a case tracking system and searchable public website that would include information about property seized and forfeited under state law, finally bringing accountability and transparency to the law.

Poorly crafted forfeiture laws can harm the public. One example reported by AL.com tells the story of Frank Ranelli, whose computer repair shop was raided by officers on a tip that Ranelli was selling stolen goods. Police seized around 130 computers from the shop, many belonging to his customers. Ranelli was later cleared of any wrongdoing, but he has yet to have any of the seized property returned to him. This happened seven years ago.

Proponents of forfeiture argue it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward their enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources to be used for public benefit, but critics of the process note it gives law enforcement agencies economic incentives to seize property, corrupting them and penalizing innocent property owners.

Assets should be seized only for criminal reasons, and law enforcement should not have incentives to seize any more property than is necessary and justified.

The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.
 

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 2nd Edition
http://ij.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/policing-for-profit-2nd-edition.pdf
Dick Carpenter, Lisa Knepper, Angela Erickson, and Jennifer McDonald argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Civil forfeiture threatens the constitutional rights of all Americans. Using civil forfeiture, the government can take your home, business, cash, car or other property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity—and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime. Most people unfamiliar with this process would find it hard to believe that such a power exists in a country that is supposed to recognize and hold dear rights to private property and due process of law,” they write.

An Overview of Recent State-Level Forfeiture Reforms
http://www.heritage.org/crime-and-justice/report/overview-recent-state-level-forfeiture-reforms
Jason Snead of The Heritage Foundation examines civil asset forfeiture and how states are moving to reform their forfeiture laws.

Policing for Profit: Federal Equitable Sharing
http://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit/federal-equitable-sharing/
In this report by The Institute for Justice (IJ), IJ examines federal equitable sharing laws and the effect they have on property seizures in the states.  

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/03/civil-asset-forfeiture-7-things-you-should-know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.

Playing Both ‘Cops and Robbers’ on Asset Forfeiture
https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/playing-both-cops-and-robbers-on-asset-forfeiture?source=policybot
Jesse Hathaway, managing editor of Budget & Tax News, examines in this article a new digital system that allows highway patrolmen to use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize individuals’ assets stored in bank accounts or on prepaid debit cards at the press of a button. “Civil asset forfeiture creates too many perverse economic incentives. However well-intentioned the idea may be, the practice of civil asset forfeiture has been corrupted and now infringes on Americans’ right to be free from harassment by money-hungry agents of the government,” wrote Hathaway.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
http://reason.com/archives/2014/09/24/the-civil-asset-forfeiture-racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/policing-profit-abuse-civil-asset-forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/civil-asset-forfeiture-reform-goes-mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses have drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.

Sidebar: Stricter State Law, More Equitable Sharing
http://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit/federal-equitable-sharing/stricter-state-law-more-equitable-sharing/
The Institute for Justice examines a 2011 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice by criminologists Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Marian Williams that found local and state law enforcement agencies in states choosing to make civil forfeiture more difficult and less financially rewarding through state laws have tended to turn to federal equitable sharing to make up for lost funds.
 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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Author
Matthew Glans joined the staff of The Heartland Institute in November 2007 as legislative specialist for insurance and finance. In 2012, Glans was named senior policy analyst.
mglans@heartland.org @HeartlandGR