Daryl James

Alabama police and prosecutors stick to the talking points when defending civil forfeiture, a law enforcement maneuver that allows the government to seize and keep property without worrying about the owners’ constitutional rights.

Participants in the moneymaking scheme insist that their motives are pure. Public safety comes first, they promise, not revenue. They also give assurances that they only target lawbreakers, even when they take title of cash, cars and other valuables without convicting anyone of a crime. Many property owners never even face charges before losing assets.

Policing for Profit, a nationwide report released Dec. 14 from the nonprofit Institute for Justice, casts doubt on the narrative. The analysis of state and federal forfeiture laws ranks Alabama among the worst in the nation for its low standards of proof, weak protections for innocent property owners, and perverse financial incentives that allow law enforcement agencies to keep 100% of the proceeds they collect.

Overall, Alabama earns a D minus, the same grade the state received in 2015 following a previous analysis of state laws. The lack of improvement is not surprising, considering the strong resistance to reform in 2018.

Alabama Senate Bill 213 would have required a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture and sent proceeds to the state’s General Fund rather than local law enforcement coffers. The measure, which never received a vote on the Senate floor, had huge financial stakes.

Alabama police and prosecutors used civil forfeiture to claim $2.4 million in fiscal year 2019 with another $1.2 million pending. The total does not include cash from forfeited vehicles and other assets sold at auction. Nor does it include revenue from an additional 511 cases omitted from the state-mandated transparency report. An additional $2.8 million came from agencies’ participation in joint operations with federal agents—also not included in the transparency report—pushing the likely tally into the range of $7 million.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh and Coffee County Sheriff Dave Sutton say the cash does not influence law enforcement behavior. Yet they contradict themselves on two key points in a guest column to stop the 2018 reform.

First, they argue that requiring a conviction prior to forfeiture would result in more charges filed and more people facing incarceration for lesser crimes because prosecutors looking for a path to profit would have no other choice. In other words, they say prosecutors would alter their charging decisions based on financial considerations.

Second, the authors argue that transferring proceeds to the General Fund would kill enthusiasm for forfeiture because local agencies would lose their profit motive. Think about the implications. They claim that civil forfeiture deters crime, yet they threaten to pull back if they cannot cash in.

Hopefully law enforcement does not take the same approach when responding to 911 calls. Officers receive compensation for their time, not commissions, precisely to avoid a system that pays per citation or arrest. Nobody in society is safer when each traffic stop, pat down or home search represents a potential payoff.

Defenders of civil forfeiture make doomsday predictions if state lawmakers end the moneymaking scheme. Yet reforms in other parts of the country show otherwise.

New Mexico, the only state that received an A on the Institute for Justice report card, ended civil forfeiture in 2015 without any negative consequences. The state’s overall crime rate did not rise following reform, nor did arrest rates drop.

Scaring people about unsafe streets is a distraction anyway. At its core the debate is about due process or the lack thereof. People who break the law need consequences, but they also need a presumption of innocence. They need real protection under the law, not empty talking points.