The day in 2007 that Alabama police raided his stepfather's house on suspicion of growing marijuana, Robert Bradford remembers the sheriff looking out the window and remarking, "This'll make a great shooting range for training the police department, this property."
Royce Williams, Bradford's stepfather, had been growing and using marijuana to manage pain from several surgeries, according to his family. He wasn't a drug dealer, they said. But that didn't matter to local law enforcement, which initiated court proceedings to seize the 40 acres of property that had been in his family for generations.
Under a controversial tool called civil asset forfeiture, prosecutors continued to pursue the property even after Williams' 2009 suicide—a last-ditch attempt to keep it in his family's name. Williams' wife, battling terminal cancer, continued to fight in federal court and ultimately won, although she went deep into debt.
Williams' case was one of several profiled in a report on civil asset forfeiture released today by two civil rights groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.
Alabama law enforcement raked in roughly $2.2 million through civil asset forfeiture in 2015, according to the report, which examined forfeiture cases in 14 counties. The report reveals a widespread lack of transparency, uncovers large racial disparities, and shows that marijuana offenses were a major driver of forfeiture actions.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged with a crime. In a quarter of the 827 asset forfeiture cases examined in the report, no criminal charges were filed against property owners.
Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a crucial tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime. Civil libertarians reply that there are far too few protections for innocent property owners, who must go to court to challenge seizures, and far too many perverse profit incentives for police and prosecutors.
The total value awarded in the Alabama cases where no criminal charges were filed amounted to more than $670,000. In half of the full set of cases, the amount of cash was $1,372 or less—too little for most people to bother hiring a lawyer to recover.
"With more than $5 million a year coming to Alabama law enforcement agencies through state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws, the profit motive can too easily overshadow the fair administration of justice," the report says.
Those concerns have led more than half of the states across the U.S. to enact some form of civil asset forfeiture reform. Today, in a joint press conference with the civil rights groups, two Republican state legislators announced they would be introducing a bill to require criminal convictions for forfeitures, as well as strengthening protections for innocent property owners and adding new reporting requirements.
"No criminal should be able to profit off of their crime," Alabama GOP state Sen. Arthur Orr said in a press release. "Our laws must also protect innocent Alabama property owners. Currently, Alabama law does not provide those basic protections."
The report found that 42 percent of all the civil asset forfeiture cases studied were related to marijuana offenses. In 18 percent of the cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia.
The report also showed racial disparities in who is being hit with civil forfeiture in Alabama. African Americans made up 64 percent of cases where criminal charges were filed, even though they comprise only about 27 percent of Alabama's population.
Chase Dearman, defense attorney a Mobile, Alabama, says in the report that the government has seized petty cash from his clients' wallets and furniture off their walls.
"The law is not inherently racist, but I do believe the practical applications become that way," Dearman says in the report. "I have never had a Caucasian client who has had a narcotics officer unscrew the TVs from their walls and take them out the front door and confiscate them. However, it is a common occurrence with African-American clients."
A Reason investigation of public records and court filings in Mississippi revealed similar cases, such as one where local police seized a woman's furniture, including paintings and lamps, on suspicion that her boyfriend was a drug dealer. After fighting in court for several years, the woman eventually had all her furniture returned except the couch, which the prosecutor kept as part of a settlement deal.
To collect the data, the report's researchers had to trawl Alabama county courts. That turned out to to be the easy part.
Researchers sent records requests to 138 agencies trying to track where asset forfeiture funds went after they were awarded and how they were spent. Only 38 agencies responded, and most of those either did not keep the records or refused to release them.
Alabama doesn't have any transparency or reporting requirements surrounding asset forfeiture. Last year, the state earned an "F" grade from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public-interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, for its lack of transparency.
"Due to Alabama's lack of forfeiture reporting, it is impossible to know how many innocent people have been caught up in the state's forfeiture machine," the Institute for Justice's Jennifer McDonald wrote in an op-ed for AL.com last year.
The two civil rights groups recommend abolishing civil asset forfeiture altogether, a change that would require law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction before taking someone's property through forfeiture. They also recommend strengthening protections for innocent property owners, improving forfeiture reporting requirements, and funneling forfeiture revenues to Alabama's General Fund instead of directly into police and prosecutor budgets.
"It's time for Alabama lawmakers to place the burden where it belongs—on the government," Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said in a statement. "Civil asset forfeiture is broken beyond repair. We urge legislators to ensure that only people convicted of a crime can lose their property through criminal forfeiture and to bring transparency and accountability to the forfeiture process."
Robert Bradford now lives on his stepfather and mother's property. "In a country where due process runs everything, this seems to have slipped through the cracks," he said at the press conference.
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