Asset Forfeiture

Arkansas Legislature Effectively Votes To Abolish Civil Asset Forfeiture

Arkansas joins three other states in requiring police secure a conviction before they can seize a person's property.

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Ingram Publishing/Newscom

The Arkansas legislature unanimously passed a significant asset forfeiture reform bill Wednesday. The new law will require police and prosecutors to obtain a criminal conviction in most cases before they can seize someone's property.

The bill, S.B. 308, passed the Arkansas Senate by a unanimous vote last month. On Wednesday, the bill similarly sailed through the Arkansas House by a vote of 93-0. If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas will join four three states—North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska—that have severely curtailed or abolished asset forfeiture.

The new law would require prosecutors to obtain a criminal conviction to forfeit property. There are a list of exceptions, however, including if the property owner is deceased, deported, flees the jurisdiction or fails to challenge the forfeiture, or if the property is abandoned.

Jenna Moll, the deputy director of the Justice Action Network, a criminal justice advocacy group, called the passage of the bill "a watershed moment for forfeiture reform efforts in the United States."

"To see two chambers of the Arkansas legislature pass this legislation unanimously is truly remarkable," Moll says. "Arkansas has now truly set the marker for other states seeking to protect property rights and improve due process for their citizens."

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged or convicted of a crime. Law enforcement groups say it is a vital tool that disrupts drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting the flow of ill-gotten money.

However, civil liberties groups argue there are far too few procedural protections for innocent property owners, who may lose their car, their cash, and even their house.

As Reason's Jacob Sullum reported in 2016, an Arkansas highway trooper seized $20,000 from a man during a traffic stop on suspicion that it was drug money, even though there was no evidence whatsoever of illegal activity.

The proceeds of asset forfeiture are often then split between local prosecutors' offices and police departments. The federal government also partners with state and local police on forfeiture cases, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the Justice Department's asset forfeiture fund.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that state law enforcement agencies rake in tens of millions of dollars a year through asset forfeiture.

Arkansas law enforcement agencies seized nearly $88 million in cash from 2010-18, about $9.7 million per year, according to data collected by Jeremy Horpedahl, assistant professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas.

That does not include the value for roughly 4,900 vehicles, at least 3,300 weapons and 1,000 other pieces of property confiscated in that span, according to numbers provided by Horpedahl, who has been tracking the data since a former student wrote a thesis on civil asset forfeiture in the state.

Numerous investigations and reports have found that, in addition to big cash hauls and flashy speedboats, police often use asset forfeiture for petty seizures against everyday people, not cartel lords. Asset forfeiture also disproportionately targets minorities and poor people who don't have the resources to challenge seizures in court. A recent investigation by local newspapers in South Carolina revealed that black men accounted for 65 percent of all citizens targeted for civil forfeiture in the state, despite making up only 13 percent of the total state population.

More than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade in response to bipartisan concerns.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision that the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines and fees applied to the states. The case, Timbs v. Indiana, challenged the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover—four times the maximum fine for the drug crime that resulted in the seizure.

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  1. or fails to challenge the forfeiture

    If you don’t have a conviction, what is there to challenge?

    1. Yeah, that bit seems like a loophole bit enough to forfeit an aircraft through.

      1. Only in the case of a conviction, except for these exceptions: Fail to challenge the forfeiture.

        that seems like a bizarre mobius strip logic.

        1. “”that seems like a bizarre mobius strip logic.””

          Maybe not. Who benefits from it. Lawyers. What happens if you can’t afford one? Does this fall under criminal or civil? You do not have a right to a Lawyer for civil trials as you do criminal.

          1. It doesn’t say you have to put up a successful challenge in a law court, just that you have to challenge it at all. Seems reasonable to me, though there will be abuses.

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        2. It also provides for an exception, presumably, if they shoot the defendant dead. Seems legit.

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    2. I see no serious loophole here. Consider the following hypothetical. You, a drug dealer, are interrupted in your transaction. While fleeing the police, you drop your kilo of heroin in the street. The police pick it up. They strongly suspect that you are the property owner but it was a dark night and they don’t win the conviction. You aren’t deceased, deported or fled the city so the police can’t keep your heroin under those exceptions. Maybe we could argue that you abandoned the property – but maybe I can’t easily prove that either. Instead, let’s just start the forfeiture and see if you come forward to challenge it. You won’t of course (because doing so would mean admitting that you were the criminal they’re chasing) but when you don’t come forward, at least they have a legal basis for seizing and destroying the heroin.

      1. It’s not drugs that people have an issue with these seizures. It’s personal property like boats, cars, money, ect.

        Weird hypothetical.

        1. The abusive uses of CAF are all about personal property like boats, cars and houses – things that should not be subject to civil asset forfeiture in the first place.

          The historic and legitimate purpose of CAF was (and still is) for situations just like this – contraband with no clear owner but which the government needs to take custody of in order to dispose of it. Remember that the government can not legally destroy something until they own it. So they need some way of legally gaining ownership.

    3. I would say this is related to the other reasons given. For example if they say you are dead, your estate could challenge the forfeiture. And if news of your death has been greatly exaggerated, but you fail to challenge it.

  2. Might this mean that porky might not have so much slop and other feed?

  3. Considering this follows comes in the wake of the Timbs v Indiana ruling, it seems like they are a little late to the party. I Don’t see that this does much that the Supreme Court has not already done, other than, a Legal form of, yeah, what he said.

    1. Timbs only said that excessive seizures are illegal. Arizona, on the other hand, said that all seizures require a conviction. Okay, there are a bunch of exceptions but those exceptions do not include just expensive things.

      1. Not a clue what Arizona did, However this law in Arkansas bans forfeiture without a conviction. If there is no conviction than seizing even a penny would be excessive. While the Supreme court did not specifically say that forfeiture without a conviction is illegal, they did say that it must not be excessive. So what level is excessive if there has not been a conviction? Besides which, the fact it was a unanimous ruling, makes it pretty clear where the courts will be coming down on any future cases. A Police officer may try to steel a few more assets before the door finally slams shut, but I doubt many judges will be eager to be out of line with a unanimous Supreme Court.

  4. Well, loophole or not, it is still great progress forward.

  5. “Arkansas Legislature Effectively Votes To Abolish Civil Asset Forfeiture”

    Where’s the asshole Rev to tell us about the backwards folks occupying fly-over country?

    1. The meth dealers lobby must be behind this law.

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  9. This is excellent. Civil forfeiture without a conviction for a related crime is theft. PERIOD!
    All the officials involved should be prosecuted for larceny with resulting jail sentences if convicted. This must become the law in every state to end the abusive thefts from those not convicted of crimes.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  10. IMO Asset Forfeiture is nothing short of Extortion by Judicial process/law. I feel that any/all laws that’s sole purpose is feeding the court system and law enforcement should be abolished. All “petty crimes” should be treated as such instead of “felonies”. The forfeiture cases I’ve reviewed are small amounts of money ($1,000.00) or less and hand guns. Not worth a person challenging, but easy money for county. I do NOT see Justice in this, I see thieves that are as bad or worse than the criminals they are hired to protect us from. I DO NOT use Drugs, never have and never will, I do not condone them in any way, shape nor fashion. I do NOT see any good coming out of this “war on drugs” but I do see innocent children, spouses, parents, etc suffering because of the addiction of their loved ones and the revolving door of “Justice”.

  11. Four down, 46 to go.

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