Diverse groups hold forum on civil asset forfeiture

A diverse coalition of groups that oppose the law enforcement practice of seizing property from citizens without first obtaining a criminal conviction held an educational forum today, arguing that the Alabama State Legislature should outlaw the practice.

The organizations are making their case ahead of the 2018 Alabama legislative session, hoping to change current state law that allows the practice – also known as civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, Alabama’s law enforcement agencies are allowed to confiscate cash, vehicles and other private property on the mere suspicion that it was either involved in a crime or derived from criminal activity.

“Civil asset forfeiture is unfair, undemocratic and un-American,” said Shay Farley, the Alabama Policy Counsel for the SPLC and moderator of the panel. “These laws turn the Constitutional provision that a person is innocent until proven guilty on its head. Luckily for Alabamians, the solutions are clear. The Alabama legislature can fix the problems in current practices by requiring criminal convictions before forfeiture of associated property, by placing proceeds from forfeiture into the state’s general fund instead of local law enforcement agency budgets, and by requiring public reporting of seizures and how the proceeds are spent.”

Co-hosted by 11 diverse organizations and membership groups – including the SPLC and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice – panelists at the forum discussed the roots of civil asset forfeiture in the failed drug war, the problems of transparency, and the potential for abuse of the practice by law enforcement. Participants also discussed the prospect of necessary reforms in the Alabama legislative session of 2018.

The organizations want the Alabama legislature to strengthen the protection of individual property rights, eliminate the profit motive in the practice, and ensure transparency in reporting.

“In Alabama, law enforcement agencies can take your property even if you are never charged with a crime,” said panelist Frank Knaack, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. “You then have the burden to prove in court that your property is legally owned – that’s right, your property is guilty until proven innocent. To make matters worse, law enforcement are not required to report what they seize, how much they seize, and how they spend the proceeds. It’s a system that incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.”

The forum, held at the Burr & Forman law firm in Birmingham, Ala., also referenced the stories of people who have been affected by civil asset forfeiture, including the family of Wayne Bonam. A few months after a drug task force in Covington County, Alabama, targeted Bonam in a raid, he passed away. Andalusia District Attorney Walt Merrell pressed on with civil asset forfeiture anyway, winning the case against Bonam’s home and his cash, and compounding the tragedy for his grieving family. The money from the seizure flowed into the task force, which was in the process of losing a federal grant.

“Based on our analysis of the financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property, the government’s standard of proof to forfeit, and who bears the burden in innocent owner claims, Alabama earned a D-minus grade,” said panelist Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute of Justice. “No teacher or parent would be happy with that grade, and neither should Alabamians when their property and due process rights are at stake.”

Panelist Jordan Richardson, a senior policy analyst for the Charles Koch Institute, said policing should be about public safety, not profit. “States around the country, including Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, are moving in the right direction,” Richardson said. “Alabama should not risk getting left behind.”

Other states and the U.S. House of Representatives have recognized that civil asset forfeiture often does not align with the presumption of innocence and the respect for property rights that are bedrock principles of the United States.

In addition to the SPLC and Alabama Appleseed, the Charles Koch Institute and the Institute of Justice, other co-sponsors of the forum included the Alabama Libertarian Party, the Alabama Policy Institute, the ACLU of Alabama, the American Constitutional Society – Alabama Chapter, the Drug Policy Alliance, Faith in Action Alabama, and the Federalist Society – Birmingham Lawyers Chapter.