By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
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.
That information comes from a new report given to lawmakers this month and required under a 2019 law. There were 870 seizure events, though those behind the inaugural report admit some data is lacking.
The report does not include information on how much of that forfeited money, or other property, was taken from people who were not charged or convicted of crimes. In 2019, some lawmakers pushed to stop the state’s use of forfeitures without convictions.
Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the state Office of Prosecution Services, told Alabama Daily News that the report meets the law’s requirements, but future publications will have more details, including convictions.
Matson said the information in the first report was limited because law enforcement started collecting it prior to the 2019 reporting law using PDF documents. In a few weeks, they’ll begin training on a digital system developed with the University of Alabama, Matson said.
“So, we will have really specific data, I mean like, was the car going east or westbound when it was stopped,” he said.
Some lawmakers want more information soon. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the legislation that became law. His original bill would have stopped forfeitures without convictions. Law enforcement, including prosecutors, opposed that. As passed, the law requires the collection of about 12 data points on seized property.
“I intend to formally request additional information as is delineated in the law,” Orr told Alabama Daily News on Wednesday. “I understand the report can be in summary form; however, it is necessary for policy makers to acquire as much detailed data as possible upon which they can make sound decisions.
“I understand also that we are just starting this process and the data were less than a full year, but I have high expectations for future years.”
Information required to be collected includes:
- The date of the seizure and where it occurred;
- The name of the law enforcement agency involved;
- A description of the suspected underlying criminal activity;
- Any known arrest, including the date and charge, related to the seizure which occurred prior to a forfeiture final judgment of the seized property;
- The disposition of the property, including the date of any order;
- The name of each entity receiving all or any portion of the seized property subject to the forfeiture disposition.
The law also mandates that by February 1 of each year, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center Commission give the governor and legislative leaders a report of seizure and forfeiture activity for the previous fiscal year, including the type, approximate value and disposition of property seized and forfeited, and the amount of any proceeds received.
The report is also to be posted on the commission’s website.
A statement from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which oversees ACJIC, said the report given to lawmakers is a summary of information in order to protect personally identifiable and criminal justice information.
Also, the ACJIC does not have a website, but when one is created the report will be published there.
There are more than a dozen statutes in Alabama law allowing for the seizure of property related to alleged criminal activity, according to the report. Not all criminal activity results in an arrest but may still justify a seizure.
Seized property can include money, weapons and vehicles.
The 870 seizures totaled:
- $4,882,016.20 in currency;
- 186 vehicles;
- 470 weapons;
- 231 other items.
Seized money is listed in the report, broken down by the state’s 41 circuit courts.
The largest total amount seized, $1.2 million, was in Marengo, Greene and Sumter counties.
“It’s a cartel route, pure and simple,” Matson said.
The report includes total police activities, including 486,714 arrest and incident reports. In that context, 870 seizures is a low number, Matson said.
Seized, then forfeited
Law enforcement can seize property if they have reason to believe it was criminally gained. Even if there’s no conviction, law enforcement can keep the property with a civil court order.
Forfeitures require prosecutors to file civil actions in circuit courts and get a judge’s ruling. The 2019 report lists $2.4 million forfeited, $25,509 returned and $1.1 million “pending” court action.
The report said an additional 511 civil forfeiture cases were reported by state prosecutors, but did not have associated dispositions or specific descriptions of the seizure type. The data is collected by prosecutors around the state and the report said some did not collect it at the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year.
Matson said more information or a deeper dive into a specific area could be made available to lawmakers or other officials should they want it.
Alabama Daily News has requested from Matson’s office the number of forfeitures where there were convictions and the number where there were not.
Matson said the number of convictions can be deceiving because sometimes informants aren’t charged if they help law enforcement with their investigations. But they shouldn’t get money or property back, Matson said.
Alabama Daily News also asked for a list of the agencies that ultimately were awarded the forfeited money and property and how much they received. Advocates for stopping forfeitures also say law enforcement agencies shouldn’t financially benefit by taking property from people who didn’t commit crimes.
Matson said the forfeiture actions are transparent, happening in open court. However, due to the nature of court filings in Alabama, they have been difficult to track. In part because criminal case numbers are different from civil case numbers. He said a tracking process involving a single case number is in the works.
In 2018, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center examined 1,110 civil asset forfeiture cases in 14 counties from 2015. In 827 cases, a total of $2.2 million was awarded for law enforcement. One-fourth of the cases were against people never charged with a crime, according to Appleseed. They forfeited $670,000. Eighteen percent of cases where charges were filed involved simple possession of marijuana or paraphernalia.
“The law was originally established to go after the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins and those who were profiting from their criminal activities,” Orr said in 2019. “But it’s being used for low-level crimes for defendants who can’t afford a lawyer on the civil side (to get their property returned).”
Groups are still advocating for ending forfeitures.
“There is strong support, across political ideologies in Alabama, for ending civil asset forfeiture,” said Shay Farley, SPLC’s interim deputy policy officer for the Southeast. “It’s an unnatural diversion from criminal procedure that undermines individual property rights and undermines the public trust in law enforcement. The Legislature required detailed reporting on how civil asset forfeiture laws were applied in Alabama. They, and the public writ large, deserve to have information regarding law enforcement operations, particularly as it relates to the money collected, from whom and when.”
Sixteen states don’t allow forfeiture without a criminal conviction, according to Institute for Justice.
Orr on Wednesday said more information is needed before changes to Alabama’s asset forfeiture law are considered.
“The data will help determine that,” Orr said. “The anecdotal evidence is that it is something that is needed. But having concrete data in the granular level is important to make that decision.”