The Alabama legislature passed a compromise bill on Monday to curtail asset forfeiture. Although it was significantly scaled back to appease law enforcement, civil liberties advocates still say that it is a step in the right direction.
The Alabama House passed Senate Bill 210, sending it to Republican Gov. Kay Ivey's desk. The bill would limit law enforcement seizures of cash to more than $250 and vehicles worth more than $5,000, among other provisions.
The legislation is the result of three years of work by state legislators and advocacy groups to rein in civil asset forfeiture in Alabama, which has among the laxest rules in the country for when police and prosecutors can seize people's property. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, gave Alabama a "D-" grade for its civil forfeiture laws.
The original bill was much stronger and included provisions that would have required a conviction to forfeit property, essentially eliminating civil asset forfeiture, which allows police and prosecutors to seize property even when the owner is not charged with a crime.
But the conviction requirement and other measures were ultimately stripped from the bill to avoid the ire of the powerful law enforcement lobby, which had scuttled previous incarnations of the legislation.
"This bill is a start, but it doesn't go far enough," says Leah Nelson, research director at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group that supports civil forfeiture reform.
Nelson says the legislation would still do some important things, such as improve protections for innocent owners and ban police from using roadside waivers, which have been used by police in other states to essentially coerce people into forfeiting their property.
However, Nelson says, the dollar-amount thresholds for cash and vehicles are still far too low to protect the majority of people whose property is taken from them.
"In Alabama, it's not at all uncommon for people who lack easy access to banking services to just cash their paychecks and carry that money around with them," Nelson says. "Under this new law, people in that position, including many Alabamians of color, will still be vulnerable to having their money taken and kept without due process."
A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Appleseed found that Alabama law enforcement raked in roughly $2.2 million through civil asset forfeiture in 2015. The report revealed a widespread lack of transparency, uncovered large racial disparities, and showed that marijuana offenses were a major driver of forfeiture actions.
The total value awarded in the Alabama cases where no criminal charges were filed amounted to more than $670,000. In half of the 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 said.
For example, Reason reported on the civil forfeiture case of Greg and Teresa Almond, an Alabama couple who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Randolph County Sheriff's Office in March after a 2018 drug raid upturned their lives and left them homeless, all for misdemeanor marijuana possession:
The search only turned up $50 or less of marijuana, which the Almonds' adult son tried in vain to claim as his, and a single sleeping pill outside of a prescription bottle with Greg's name on it. The Almonds were arrested and charged with misdemeanor drug possession for personal use. However, deputies also seized roughly $8,000 in cash, along with dozens of firearms and other valuables, using civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity.
The arrest came at the same time that the Almonds were trying to refinance the loans they had taken out to start a chicken farm, and as a result, they say they missed a crucial bank deadline, resulting in their house being foreclosed upon. They now live in a utility shed[…]
A judge later dismissed the criminal charges against the Almonds and ordered their property returned.
Or take the case of Frank Ranelli. Alabama police raided Ranelli's computer repair shop in 2010, acting on a tip that Ranelli was selling stolen goods. Police seized roughly 130 computers from the shop, most of them belonging to customers. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was eventually dismissed, yet none of the property was ever returned to him.
"Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years, and I show up at work that morning—I was in here doing my books from the day before—and the police just fucked my life," Ranelli told Al.com.
Alabama passed new transparency requirements for asset forfeiture in 2019. It previously had almost no requirements for police and prosecutors to report how much they seized or what they spent forfeiture proceeds on.
"We have seen civil asset forfeiture occur when someone is only facing charges and hasn't been convicted or when the value of the property forfeited is disproportionate to financial penalties under the law," Shay Farley, regional policy director with SPLC Action Fund, said in a press release. "Taking someone's property is something that should only be done rarely, and this bill will help protect the rights of innocent property owners. While we maintain asset forfeiture should follow a criminal conviction—in criminal court—Senate Bill 210 will end some of the biggest ills seen in civil asset forfeiture."