Under new reform Alabama, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey late last month, became the latest state to target its civil forfeiture laws, which allow police and prosecutors to seize and keep property without even convicting the owner of a crime. . Last year in Alabama more than a third of all the forfeiture cases did not even involve an arrest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alabama police have aggressively pursued the seizure. About the past two yearsAlabama agencies opened 2,158 forfeiture cases, seizing $ 12.74 million in cash and 477 cars. However, the owners rarely took back what had been taken from them. During that same period, police returned only 38 cars, along with nearly $ 139,000 in cash.
Winning a civil forfeiture case in Alabama is so difficult that many homeowners don’t even try to hire an attorney to fight back. Almost two-thirds of all cash seized last year was forfeited by default, that is, when the property owner did not participate in a forfeiture litigation in civil court.
But under the newly signed SB 210, the police can no longer seize cash under $ 250 or cars valued at less than $ 5,000. By preventing police from taking cash or cars into their custody, Alabama’s new seizure thresholds could prevent homeowners from being subject to civil forfeiture in the first place. As a result, even at those low thresholds, SB 210 could still protect hundreds of people from the hand of the state.
Recent one report By Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,110 forfeiture cases in Alabama, and more than half of those cases involve less than $ 1,400 in cash. Incredibly, that number was even lower in neighboring states. According to a 2020 study Per the Institute of Justice, the average cash forfeiture was just $ 540 in Georgia and just $ 675 in Tennessee.
“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property in Alabama,” said Lee McGrath, senior legislative adviser for the Institute of Justice. By setting minimum dollar thresholds for currency and vehicles, Alabama becomes one of the few states to address the problem of thousands of low-value seizures. This is groundbreaking reform because it is irrational for even the most innocent property owner to pay an attorney to litigate the return of $ 250 or an old car. “
Only a handful of other jurisdictions have recently set thresholds for confiscating or confiscating property. Since 2017 Illinois prosecutors You can’t lose cash below $ 100, although for drug possession charges, that threshold goes up to $ 500. A 2019 law in North Dakota forbidden losing vehicles under $ 2,000, unless the car “has been modified to conceal contraband or currency.” And last December, the district attorney for Contra Costa County, California issued a new threshold of $ 1,000 to lose the property, doubling the previous minimum.
As an innovative policy, data on the impact of seizure thresholds is quite scarce, but a 2016 reform enacted in Florida can shed light. Under that law, agencies must pay a filing fee of $ 1,000 after confiscating the property and posting a bond of $ 1,500, the latter of which must be paid to owners who repossess their property. That effectively set a $ 2,500 threshold for losing property, which in turn deterred petty seizure agencies. Since that reform was enacted, half of all cash seizures in Florida have been for less than $ 4,500, the state with by far the highest median value for currency seizures.
As originally introduced, SB 210 would have abolished civil forfeiture entirely in Alabama, Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina. But after extensive negotiations with law enforcement groups, the bill watered down considerably to win their support. Although it is a long way from ending civil forfeiture, the final version of SB 210 still contains key protections.
In addition to setting minimum seizure values, SB 210 gives people who are not suspected of a crime, such as a spouse, parent, or creditor, their day in court immediately after the seizure. The new law also requires prosecutors to bear the burden of proof when trying to seize property. Previously, anyone who had your cash, vehicle or any other valuable property that was not seized was effectively guilty until proven innocent. Only 14 other states, plus the District of Columbia, abide by the presumption of innocence by civil forfeiture.
With SB 210, the state of Yellowhammer also became the fifth state to ban highway exemptions, which allow officers to force drivers to relinquish their rights to their property (often cash), without no guarantee for due process. Alabama now joins Arizona, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming in banning this abusive practice.
“This important legislation allows our law enforcement agencies to continue to deter criminal activity and confiscate property obtained through illegal actions, while at the same time ensuring that due process and the rights of the owner of the property in question are protected,” sponsors the bill, Senator Arthur Orr said in a statement. With SB 210, “we can give the people of Alabama the assurance that their right to due process is protected.”