Civil Asset Forfeiture

Why Did Arizona Democrats Kill a Bill Protecting Citizens From Police Overreach?

It’s all about the revenue. Civil forfeiture brings in money, and lawmakers are more worried about their budgets than residents’ due process and property rights.


An Arizona bill requiring police and prosecutors to get a criminal conviction before they could attempt to force defendants to forfeit their assets died Thursday at the hands of a bloc of mostly Democratic lawmakers.

Civil asset forfeiture is a mechanism that lets law enforcement seize and keep the assets of people believed to have committed crimes. Many states do not require defendants to actually be convicted—or sometimes even charged—with a crime before police take their property. People are thus put in the position of having to prove their innocence in order to get the money back, subverting due process. Meanwhile, police agencies keep the money they seize and sell the other property they take, thus filling in gaps in their budgets.

This leads inevitably to corruption, as cops look for a pretext to stop people, search them or their vehicles, and—if they find large sums of cash or other valuable property—claim it simply must be proceeds from drug trafficking and try to keep it for themselves. This process was sold to the public as a way to fight drug cartels and other criminal kingpins, but in reality most forfeitures are for relatively small amounts taken from underprivileged people who lack the resources to fight back.

Some states have started reforming these laws to require stronger evidentiary thresholds before police could force forfeitures. And some states have changed the rules to demand a criminal conviction before police try to take somebody's property.

That was what S.B. 1556 in Arizona attempted to accomplish. The state had already reformed its civil asset forfeiture laws back in 2017, requiring a tougher evidence threshold and also keeping cops from bypassing state restrictions on forfeitures by partnering up with the Justice Department. S.B. 1556, sponsored by state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth (R–Gilbert), would tighten the rules further: It flat out requires a criminal conviction before police and prosecutors can attempt a forfeiture, with some exceptions if a defendant dies, flees the state, or abandon the property. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in March.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the state legislature shut down. The Senate ended its session entirely; the House took up some bills this week before ending its session too. The forfeiture reform bill made it out committee earlier in the week, with a small number of Democrats voting no. But when the full House voted on Thursday afternoon, all 29 Democrats, plus 8 Republicans, voted against the legislation.

The partisan politics of asset forfeiture are not exactly cut and dried. In most states where reforms have passed, many Democrats support them in order to stop police from targeting minorities and the poor; other Dems side with police and prosecutors. Conversely, some Republicans support reforms, citing the abandonment of due process and the violation of people's property rights. But again, some Republicans take the other side.

What's extremely unusual is for all the Democrats to vote against a forfeiture reform bill, especially after the same legislation passed out of the Senate unanimously. In their explanation for why they voted no, a couple of legislators said the quiet part loud: The pandemic is hurting government budgets, and they don't want to give up the revenue.

Rep. Kirsten Engel (D–Tucson) said that she understands that asset forfeiture abuse occurs but—in the words of the Arizona Capitol Times—"she could not support such a change without also finding a way to ensure that counties have the money they need. She said the state is in no position to do that now, partly because it already has adopted a budget for the coming fiscal year and partly because the COVID-19 pandemic is going to slash anticipated state revenues by $1 billion or more." In other words, she wants to use civil forfeiture to finance police departments even if it means the disadvantaged get the blunt end of the stick.

Another lawmaker, Diego Rodriguez (D–Phoenix), said that the money from asset forfeiture proceedings also helps fund public defenders, so cutting that financial stream might cause county supervisors to cut funding for those offices. Paul Avelar, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice's Arizona office, tells Reason that asset forfeiture money does not, in fact, pay for public defenders in Arizona. Indeed, regulations around forfeiture funds actually prohibit the money from going to anybody but law enforcement.

Regardless, a revenue stream is a thoroughly abhorrent justification for taking people's property actually convicting them of a crime.

"That as in an indictment of the forfeiture process itself," Avelar says. "Due process does not turn on government funding. That's unconstitutional, insane, disgusting."

The Twitter account for Americans for Tax Reform (which endorsed S.B. 1556) bluntly responded to justifications like Engel's: "Theft is not okay just because the state budgeted around it."

Engel must have gotten the message that her argument wasn't flying. Today she reverted to the familiar claim that asset forfeiture helps punish the bad guys:

But of course, the reason that people have turned against civil asset forfeiture is because this claim turned out to be untrue. It's frequently not being used against criminals, because, in fact, hundreds of people being subjected to it in Arizona are never convicted of any crimes.

Engel's initial justification is a more accurate assessment of why civil forfeiture persists. A 2019 study from the Institute for Justice shows that the more financial stress a community is in, the more forfeiture revenue the police take. Every percentage point increase in a community's unemployment led to nearly a 10 percent increase in the number of assets seized. During the last recession, asset forfeiture revenues skyrocketed as municipal revenues dropped in some cities and towns.

Did the forfeitures help control crime at the same time? Nope: The Institute for Justice's report also found that asset forfeiture did not reduce either crime or drug use.

Lauren Krisai, a senior policy analyst at Justice Action Network, was frustrated by the bill's strange defeat.

"It's disappointing that House Democrats put petty politics over good policy that they actually agree with," Krisai says. "This bill would have protected the most vulnerable Arizonans from having their property seized without due process. That's something that you'd think both parties would agree to. "

After killing the bill, the House adjourned for the session. So the vote cannot be reconsidered. The legislation will have to be reintroduced next term.

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  1. at the hands of a bloc of mostly Democratic lawmakers

    How can anyone think that Jefferson’s party still believes in democracy? The position of the elite party members is that ‘the people’ are no better than cattle and can no longer be trusted to know what is in their own best interest.

    1. The left used to fight The Man, now they are The Man.

      1. They were always the man.

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      2. The Left was always The Man – from before the Civil War.

    2. Actually that is what Jefferson believed. He believed that the country should be run by the elite.

      Some states only allowed property owners to vote.

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    3. Same thing happened in Hawaii before the Wuhan Flu, as there was a bipartisan bill passed to reform the corrupt asset forfeiture practices here, but our worthless idiot democrat governor Ige vetoed it.

  2. Arizona Democrats are statist assholes. the local city and county attorney offices both rely on forfeiture funds to fund the unions as well as sneak money into their campaigns.

    1. Only Arizona Demoncrats?

  3. The difference between the Mafia and Government grows starker every day.

    1. What difference? The old mafia had to find something new to do when the Russian mob, South American cartels and the Chinese Tongs pushed them out of the drug business….

    2. The mafia, at least where I live, actually cut down on street crime though. For the longest time, the only safe section of the city was the Italian area, because muggers and such would get beaten up (or worse).

      1. Plus the mafia doesn’t brag about its crimes on Twitter.

      2. Bingo. This happened in my local. Once the Mob were driven off, the downtown went to shit. Fast.

    3. In the Mafia, there’s consequences when you fuck up.

  4. at the hands of a bloc of mostly Democratic lawmakers.

    “you don’t own that”

  5. Why Did Arizona Democrats Kill a Bill Protecting Citizens From Police Overreach?

    Because FYTW. The same reason they do anything.

  6. “” and lawmakers are more worried about their budgets than residents’ due process and property rights.””

    Resident’s due process and and property rights are never very high on a lawmaker’s list of important things.

  7. Rep Engle was quoted saying “it’s all about the Benjamin’s”

  8. The cops steal more money than robbers now.

    1. At least they have started wearing masks – – – – – – – – –

  9. OT –

    GOVERNOR OF UTAH: I just signed a bill changing plural marriage from a felony to a minor infraction. That’s big o’me, isn’t it?

    1. The Utah Constitution still says that “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited” – so I guess they can’t outright legalize it until the Supreme Court says it’s a constitutional right.

      1. That, or amend the state constitution.

        As much as I favor this law (as far as I’m concerned anyone who wants more than one wife/spouse, or for that matter any wife at all, deserves whatever that brings him – or her, I suppose) I can see that it probably doesn’t actually pass the constitutionality test. Advocates probably need to correct that by amending the state constitution.

        As a teenager I listened to a story the father of a friend told of going to the Church in a northern suburb of Salt Lake City (in Utah “the Church” means the Mormon church – if you’re something else you need to specify*) in the late 1940s that had as a member a man in his late eighties or early nineties who had four wives (the youngest of whom was probably in her late seventies who each lived on and still ran farms on the outskirts of town. He had a house in town and still walked to work at the local bank where he was the president. He apparently was still visiting his wives on a regular basis.

        *When I lived in Utah in the 1960s “everyone” was assumed to be a Mormon. Even today Salt Lake City proper is the only majority non-Mormon area in the state.

      2. Now if people would only get as upset about home invasions by SWAT teams as they do about having to wear facemasks….

  10. Because Democrats reject the very notion that there is such a thing as government overreach.

  11. The biggest victim of the Chinese Flu is basic individual rights. We’ve lived in a police state for decades but politicians no longer even maintain a pretense that they give a shit about the constitution. This fake panic over a fake threat has unleashed the tyrants and we can only hope that the populous ultimately demands, by whatever means necessary, their rights back. I am not hopeful.
    Thanks Scott for a very well researched and reported article.

  12. Democratic lawmakers? In *Arizona*? Is this like the jackalope?

  13. Lotta typos in this one Shackford.

  14. I keep a few bucks in the center console of my truck. A few years back I took it in to a local repair shop for service. A few days later I was at a stoplight, I reached in to gather the few bucks in the console to give to a begging panhandler. To my surprise it was gone. I didn’t get upset because I knew that wherever that money went it went to a good cause, or at least to a place where I know I will get good, honest and reliable service because now they know where I leave their tip.

    1. Ah so you’re the asshole keeping the homeless in business. Fuck you.

  15. Our politicians are a joke. Nothing but hacks on all sides.

  16. Why Did Arizona Democrats Kill a Bill Protecting Citizens From Police Overreach?

    Because Democrats are fascist-leaning authoritarians, and have been for most of their existence?

    1. I get a kick out of people who act surprised that democrats don’t actually curtail police abuse. They’ve had hegemonic rule of most major US cities for decades, and that’s where the police are often the worst. Democrats in power have no more actual intention to curb police than Republicans in power have to balance the budget… It’s just what they use to dupe the voters.

  17. Looters gonna loot. Is anyone honestly surprised?


  18. …she could not support such a change without also finding a way to ensure that counties have the money they need.

    The system is more important than the individual. Rights are subservient to the greater good. Just has Trump has supposedly given leave of the alt-right to speak proudly their racism, the current pandemic has unleashed a torrent of leadership openly disdaining personal autonomy.

    That mindset got so overt so quickly that people were all but told by health authorities to not seek medical help until their lips turn blue. That was the medical community giving advice not for the individual’s best shot at a healthy outcome but so that the system would not be overwhelmed. That was blatantly sacrificing people for the system. This is the same.

  19. Fucktards. Let’s review the D “rationalization”:

    1. The government deserves your money.
    2. Money is evil. Therefore taking money from people protects them.
    3. We must oppose anything that the Rs support.

    1. Or that the government could do SO MANY MORE GOOD THINGS with that money than you could.

    2. #2 Money is evil. Government makes the money and wants to take it away from you when you have any. Therefore government is the source of all evil.

  20. How about a compromise: that the goods default to their owner, but may be forfeited on a proceeding where preponderance of evidence takes it?

  21. Government ‘denatured’ alcohol during prohibition, which blinded or killed thousands.
    Government mandated unconstitutional zones where homicidal maniacs could kill defenceless citizens without fearing their victims.
    Government sends teams of home invasion murder squads, ostensibly to protect us from doobies.
    Government required people with the COVID virus be sent to where the people most vulnerable to it
    So why wouldn’t government rob you, without due process, after all, it’s for our “SAFETY ©®™”! !

  22. Better that innocent people get ripped off by cops than risk not having enough funds to feed the government Leviathan. Thanks for nothing, Democrats, like usual.

  23. Another example of an issue where the onerous repugnant position cuts straight across party lines — whether it’s Democrats willing to through due process in the bin for funding, or Republicans putting “law and order” ahead of our inherent rights as people and as Americans.

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