The Alabama state Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to restrict the ability of local and state police to take ownership of citizens’ property without a criminal conviction.
If Senate Bill 213 (S.B. 213) is approved by the Alabama Legislature and signed into law, the state would become the fourth to require a criminal conviction before prosecutors could take ownership of assets or property. The bill would also require the state to create a publicly available database tracking forfeiture actions.
The committee passed S.B 213 by a 7–6 vote on February 20. A vote by the full Senate has not yet been scheduled.
Cites Importance of Due Process
The sponsor of S.B. 213, Alabama state Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), says prosecutors should have to prove people’s guilt before depriving them of their property.
“The government ought to be required to prove that criminal conviction before being able to seize stuff,” Orr said. “The idea that the government can take a citizen’s property without a criminal conviction does not sit well with most people that I discussed this issue with.”
Randall Holcombe, a professor of economics at Florida State University and a senior fellow at the James Madison Institute, says civil asset forfeiture creates perverse incentives for law enforcement agencies.
“The police are taking people’s property, and you need to prove that you’re not guilty before you can get the property back,” Holcombe said. “Obviously, there’s bad incentives for law enforcement because they often get to keep the property, and they have an incentive to [do so to] boost their budgets.”
Guarding People’s Rights
Civil asset forfeiture reform is about ensuring justice is served and rights are protected, Orr says, not allowing real criminals to escape consequences.
“We don’t want to accommodate or aid or abet criminals and their minions,” Orr said. “We can seize the property, impound the property, prevent them from using the property during the criminal justice process, … but at the end of the day, we need that conviction.”
Holcombe says the current civil asset forfeiture system holds property responsible for crimes and presumes accused citizens are guilty.
“They don’t accuse you; they accuse the asset of being guilty of a crime, and assuming it’s guilty, they take it,” Holcombe said. “One of the big negative things is that you have to prove you’re innocent. Normally, you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Punishment Without a Conviction
Holcombe says civil asset forfeiture is about punishing those believed, but not proven, to be criminals.
“A lot of it has to do with drug-related crimes,” Holcombe said. “Many times, there’s not enough evidence for a conviction, but they’ll just take the property until you can prove somehow that you’re innocent. That’s the attitude: ‘We think these people are guilty. There’s not ironclad evidence, but we can punish them anyway.'”
‘Unfair and Arbitrary’
Holcombe says another problem with civil asset forfeiture is law enforcement agencies’ capricious use of the process.
“It’s so unfair and arbitrary,” Holcombe said. “Let’s say you catch me in my fifteen-year-old Ford Taurus dealing drugs, and I lose my car. Let’s say somebody else’s child is selling drugs out of their $500,000 house, and so they’re taking your house. There’s no proportionality to the crime, even if there is a crime. They can somehow associate your house with a crime, and you forfeit your house.”
Law enforcement agencies sometimes seem proud of their use of civil asset forfeiture, Holcombe says.
“In Florida, a Corvette had been seized under civil asset forfeiture, and the police had decked it out as a patrol car,” Holcombe said. “They were just parading around the fact that they stole this guy’s Corvette and now they’re using it as a police vehicle.”