A federal grant will soon help establish new rules for civil asset forfeiture in Alabama and create a database to track property and cash seized by every law enforcement agency in the state.
Earlier this year, law enforcement leaders across the state agreed to launch a voluntary database that would track civil asset forfeitures — including any seized property, associated court filings and connected criminal cases.
Through the asset forfeiture process, police are able to seize any kind of property they suspect was purchased with income from illegal activity or used to facilitate illegal activity, and by going through the civil court system, can do so even when the owner hasn’t been criminally charged.
If a seizure is approved by a judge, law enforcement is allowed to keep the property or whatever proceeds they might make selling it through a public auction. Police often split the revenue with the prosecutors that argue the forfeiture cases in civil court.
Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey awarded a $38,000 grant to help establish that database, which will be maintained by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center (ACJIC). The center will compile the data and make regular reports for the governor, state lawmakers and the public.
The commission will also be tasked with establishing regulations that police departments, sheriff’s offices and state prosecutors will have to follow when it comes to reporting, maintaining, disclosing and disposing of property they seize.
The voluntary initiative comes after years of criticism of the state’s civil forfeiture practices and failed legislative attempts to reform them. Law enforcement groups say an accessible database will help bring transparency to the process and hopefully alleviate some of those concerns.
“Our police and deputies work long and hard to enforce laws and keep our communities safe,” Ivey said. “Establishing these regulations will ensure that seizures related to crimes are done above board and without question.”
The University of Alabama’s Center for the Advancement of Public Safety has been tapped to create the actual database in the future, but the grant Ivey announced Wednesday will help develop the regulations police and prosecutors will follow.
The grant program is administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs using funds made available to the state from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said that state prosecutors were instructed to begin collecting data related to all of the civil asset forfeitures their offices handle as of March 1.
Creating the voluntary database has been called “an important first step” by some civil liberties groups that have raised concerns about forfeiture practices in Alabama.
However, others have remained critical because civil forfeiture occurs outside of the criminal court system and doesn’t require a forfeiting party to have been convicted of a crime first.
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