By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature on Monday approved a bill changing how law enforcement can seize and keep property from low-level drug offenders.
The House approved the bill unanimously and sent it back to the Senate with some minor changes which were also agreed upon unanimously. The bill now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey.
The bill is a compromise with law enforcement after several years of failed attempts by Sen. Arthur Orr and advocacy groups to change the law they said disproportionately hurts low-income individuals and minorities.
“This will put better boundaries around the property of people and raise the bar for the government seizing it and forfeiting it for low-level charges,” Sen. Arthur Orr told Alabama Daily News last month.
“… It will help those poor individuals caught up in our criminal justice system who can’t afford to litigate to keep their belongings.”
“This bill is a compromise bill and improves Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture process,” Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, said Monday during floor discussion on the bill.
The bill is specific to drug offenses and Orr said it doesn’t change anything for large drug dealers.
- Sets a minimum value of items that can be seized. Amounts of money less than $250 and vehicles worth less than $5,000 would not be taken;
- Prohibits “roadside waivers” in which law enforcement require a person to give up their property;
- Adds a more streamlined process for “innocent owners” to get their property back;
- Provides due process protections for owners of property seized without a warrant by requiring the prosecuting authority to obtain a post-seizure seizure order from the court within a certain timeframe.
- Prohibits prosecutors at both the state and federal level from going after the same property;
- Codifies case law that says the value of items seized can’t be disproportionate to the crime.
Advocates say the bill is a start, but doesn’t go far enough.
“The innocent-owner protections will help people whose property was allegedly involved in unlawful activity without their knowledge or consent, and the ban on roadside waivers will make it harder for the government to essentially coerce people into permanently giving up their property in exchange for avoiding prosecution,” said Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed Center for Justice. “But the dollar-amount thresholds are far too low to protect the majority of people whose property is taken from them. It’s not uncommon for folks who lack easy access to banking services to simply cash their paychecks and carry that money around with them. Under this new law, people in that position, including many Alabamians of color, will still be vulnerable to having their hard-earned money taken and kept without due process. “Ultimately, the only way to end these property grabs is to eliminate civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture except under exceptional circumstances.”
Orr previously changed state law to require more reporting by law enforcement. The first of those reports showed that Alabama law enforcement agencies seized at least $4.8 million from those accused of criminal activity in fiscal year 2019, at least $2.4 million of which was later forfeited through civil court rulings. About $25,500 was returned in circuit court.
“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,” said Shay Farley, regional policy director with SPLC Action Fund. “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.”