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.