Civil asset forfeiture compromise clears Senate

Civil asset forfeiture compromise clears Senate

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Senate on Tuesday approved legislation changing the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, putting new rules on what law enforcement can take from those charged with low-level drug offenses.

Advocacy groups have argued for years that current law allows police to seize property even without a conviction, which they say 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.

“… It will help those poor individuals caught up in our criminal justice system who can’t afford to litigate to keep their belongings.”

Orr said his bill doesn’t change anything for large drug dealers.

“But for a person with a beat up car and no means to contest a forfeiture in civil court, they may be able to keep their car,” Orr, R-Decatur, said.

As originally written, Orr’s Senate Bill 210 would have ended civil forfeiture for criminal drug offenses and instead make the forfeiture process part of the criminal court. Orr on Tuesday substituted his Senate Bill 210 with what he said was a compromise with district attorneys, sheriffs and other involved groups.

The bill, Orr said:

  • Sets a minimum value of items that can be seized. Amounts of money less than $250 Vehicles worth less than $5,000 would not be taken;
  • Adds a more streamlined process for “innocent owners” to get their property back, such as a car that someone borrowed and used to deliver drugs unbeknownst to the owner;
  • 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. Again using a vehicle example, Orr said a $60,000 vehicle can’t be seized because someone has a misdemeanor drug possession charge.

“I think it’s a good first step to reducing the number of forfeitures,” he said.

Orr has pushed for asset forfeiture changes for several years, including a law that requires 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.

Orr has said the original seizure laws were designed to go after big drug dealers but is instead catching too many “little fish,” some never convicted of a crime, who have to pay civil court costs to get their property back.

Law enforcement groups have opposed previous versions of Orr’s bill. On Tuesday, Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, thanked Orr for the work on the bill.

“Asset forfeiture is a critical tool in the fight against crime and criminal enterprises,” Matson said. “When the state uses its authority to take someone’s liberty or property, it must be done with transparency and a fair due process. This bill should give confidence to the people of Alabama that its Legislature, district attorneys and law enforcement expect nothing less.”

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, praised the compromise Tuesday.

“This has been an issue that has been in discussion in this chamber for years,” Reed said.

The bill cleared the Senate 28-0 and now goes to the House.