If law enforcement agencies in Alabama want to seize and keep someone’s property — cash, cars, real estate, guns, TVs or other assets — they don’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was used in drug trafficking or obtained through criminal activity.
As in many other states, they don’t have to show that the property owner was convicted of a crime — or even charged with one.
They can just take the property. And in the vast majority of cases, they get to keep it.
That’s what happened to Wayne Bonam and his family. When drug agents raided his house in the town of Andalusia, they claimed they found cocaine and $18,282 in cash. Wayne died before the trial, so prosecutors never proved the allegations in criminal court or that the house was purchased with drug profits.
But they took the house anyway, and sold it for $76,000. Then, the local court divvied up the $94,282 in total proceeds among a drug task force, prosecutors and itself.
Wayne’s family, including a 12-year-old son, was left with just their grief.
“I feel like my brother was an African-American man with a paid-for home,” Wayne’s sister Michelle told the SPLC’s Will Tucker. “You took it. And now, his family – we don’t have nothing.”
Thousands of others across the country have been subjected to similar treatment.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws rooted in the failed War on Drugs, there has been a massive transfer of wealth and assets from American citizens – and especially the most economically vulnerable – to police, who in most states can largely use the funds however they see fit.
Studies have shown that as many as eight in 10 people whose property is seized are never even convicted. And a recent U.S. Department of Justice inspector general’s office found that in the majority of cases examined in its study “there was no discernible connection between the seizure and the advancement of law enforcement efforts.”
Many law enforcement agencies, however, view civil asset forfeiture as a way to secure revenue. The drug task force that raided Wayne’s house, Tucker writes, was facing “sharply falling federal funding” and was “cobbled together with resources from different agencies, addicted to drug money and in need of more.”
As Tucker writes, “Wayne’s house was a perfect target.”
Earlier this week the SPLC’s Shay Farley moderated a panel in Birmingham with advocates across the ideological spectrum who agree that when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, the potential for abuse far outweighs potential benefits.
“There is a better way,” said Farley.
We’re committed to working for it here in Alabama, throughout the South, and across the entire nation.
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
- Hate at school: 90-plus ‘poisonous’ incidents reported on K-12 campuses in October by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post
- In Virginia, ex-felons voted for the first time after regaining their right to vote by Sam Levine for HuffPo
- Andrea Jenkins is first openly transgender black woman elected in U.S. by Brooke Sopelsa for NBC News
- Rooting for all the black folk: seven cities in America elected their first black mayors Tuesday night by Angela Helm for The Root
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