Lawmakers are considering eliminating the authority of Alabama police and prosecutors to seize and keep citizens' property and money without actually convicting them of any crimes.
Unsurprisingly, prosecutors and sheriffs in Alabama would like to keep the gravy train going. But they're surprisingly blunt in admitting that they're in it for the money.
In Alabama, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors rake in millions each year through state and federal asset forfeiture programs, seizing people's property and keeping it for themselves, often without ever convicting anybody of an underlying crime.
A recent study showed that in a quarter of all civil forfeiture cases in Alabama, no underlying charges are ever filed, and in more than 40 percent of all civil forfeiture cases, the underlying crimes revolved around marijuana. Due to lax state reporting requirements, it's not even clear how extensively local police are turning to civil asset forfeiture.
In January two Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would require that prosecutors actually convict people of crimes in order to keep their stuff. It would put the burden on the state to prove that the property they want to seize is connected to a crime, rather than for the defendant to prove their innocence. It would move the proceeds of forfeiture to the state's general fund to eliminate the profit incentive for police and prosecutors to try to seize whatever they could get their hands on. And it would close a loophole that would forbid local law enforcement agencies from bypassing restrictions by participating in the federal "equitable sharing" Department of Justice forfeiture program.
On Monday, the head of the Alabama District Attorney's Association and the Alabama Sheriffs Association teamed up with an op-ed that urges against reforms to asset forfeiture. Much of the commentary is similar to other misleading defenses of civil asset forfeiture that we've seen. The commentary insists that "Law enforcement uses civil asset forfeiture only to go after criminals, and state law already guarantees a process that is clear and fair for any person to challenge forfeiture in court. State law also provides built-in safeguards that protect the property of those who have committed no crime."
The commentary here completely, deliberately ignores that because this process takes place in a "civil" system, challenging forfeiture requires people to pay for attorneys themselves. Yet, a good half of the forfeiture cases analyzed by a report put the total value of the seizure at less than $1,500, making the prospect of hiring an attorney to fight back a difficult proposition. And the commentary fails to note that the legal standard to seize somebody's property in a civil system is a threshold far lower than getting them convicted of a crime. The system is purposefully designed to be able to take somebody's stuff without actually proving that they are "criminals."
Then op-ed writers Brian McVeigh and Dave Sutton warn that requiring successful prosecutions will lead to them filing more charges against people:
Requiring criminal convictions would result in more criminal charges filed and more people going to prison for lesser crimes. Consider pretrial diversion programs, such as drug court, for example. These programs allow people arrested for nonviolent crimes, including some drug charges, to go into treatment and other programs that keep them out of prison. Participants in these programs are not convicted of a crime, so under the proposed change, the only way to deprive them of their ill-gotten gains would be to prosecute them.
When you find yourself threatening to find more reasons to put even more citizens in jail in order to protect your revenue stream, it's maybe time to take a step back and think about what you're doing. Also, the bill they're attacking does allow for forfeiture to be pursued as part of a plea agreement, so this claim is wildly misleading. It does not, in fact, require that prosecutors put more people in prison in order to engage in forfeiture.
But then, maybe never mind. In the very next paragraph of the op-ed, they also warn that this reform will result in police arresting fewer people! No, really!
Meanwhile, sending the proceeds of forfeiture to the state's General Fund would result in fewer busts of drug and stolen property rings. What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don't receive proceeds to cover their costs?
Guys, you're not supposed to actually admit publicly that the purpose of civil asset forfeiture is to keep the money for yourselves and that you only fight crime when you can cash in. And if you're busting "stolen property rings," aren't you supposed to returning that stuff to their rightful owners?
But hey, we'll always have that paragraph to help explain public choice theory to people who want to insist that government employees aren't subject to the same profit motives as the rest of us.