As calls to reform Alabama’s civil forfeiture practices continue, law enforcement leaders have agreed to voluntarily create a database of all the property police seize through the state court system and report that information to the public in a more easily-accessible way.
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
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Defenders of the practice have long said that these seizures help fund law enforcement operations, and civil forfeitures do generate significant revenue for federal, state and local agencies around the country. The question recently has been: What happens to it?
The United States Department of Justice annually reports to Congress all of the revenue that asset forfeitures generate for federal agencies and state agencies that bring civil forfeiture cases to federal court. However, in a number of states, including Alabama, police and prosecutors have not been required to report information about property seized in state court.
While there’s still no law requiring agencies and prosecutors to report that information, they are taking the initiative to do so in a move that would likely prevent the kind of civil forfeiture reform bills that have been introduced in Alabama’s legislature for the last three years.
On Thursday, associations representing district attorneys, sheriffs, police chiefs and other law groups announced the creation of the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System (AFAS). Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, described AFAS as a “breakthrough reporting system that will shed more light on the use of civil asset forfeitures in Alabama” — a practice that’s recently been criticized by civic groups on the right and left.
“This has been a work in progress since last spring when legislation to create a data collection and reporting system for civil asset forfeiture system died when time ran out on the legislative session,” Matson said. “We continued to work with many groups, from law enforcement and state agencies to policy groups, to voluntarily put the system in place.”
Matson said that, as of March 1, district attorneys across the state will start collecting data related to asset forfeitures, including any filings, pleadings and court rulings related to the forfeiture or any connected criminal case.
That information will then been submitted to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center (ACJIC), a division of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), which will compile the data and make reports to the governor, state lawmakers and the public. The University of Alabama’s Center for the Advancement of Public Safety is creating the AFAS database.
State Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-District 34, co-sponsored a bill last year that would have required some of the same things, though it ultimately died. On Thursday, he said the creation of AFAS would bring “transparency” and “accountability” to the civil asset forfeiture debate in Alabama.
“I can’t overstate the importance to lawmakers of having accurate, reliable information as we look legislatively at civil asset forfeitures,” Mooney said. “This new system will help paint a clearer picture of what is actually going on in the state. I am proud to be part of this solution.”
Locally, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said her office is very supportive of the idea behind the AFAS database, adding that she’s kept records of the revenues generated and the expenses her office incurs from handling civil forfeiture proceedings for years now.
However, in the past, the office has not cataloged physical items seized in the civil court system or the criminal cases successful cash seizures originated from — both of which would be required under the new, voluntary system.
Still, Rich told Lagniappe more transparency in the process will be a good thing.
“We are fully on board with more accountability across the state because there’s this misconception that we make a lot of money from these forfeiture proceedings, and we don’t,” Rich said. “In fact, it doesn’t even pay for itself in my office.”
Rich has previously said her office receives 30 percent of any cash collected from a successful forfeiture through an interagency agreement with area departments. The rest goes to police. She’s said it often costs more to argue the cases than is made from successful seizures.
While police and prosecutors seem to all be on board, the reaction to the announcement of the AFAS has been mixed among some of the groups that have championed civil forfeiture reform in the past. The conservative Alabama Policy Institute called it “an important first step.”
“This database will provide lawmakers with the information necessary to make informed policy decisions and taxpayers with the ability to hold their government accountable,” API said in a news release. “Alabama joins 37 other states around the country that maintain a centralized reporting repository of property confiscated under civil asset forfeiture.”
However, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said it was happy to see more accountability but still remains critical of the practice of civil forfeiture because it occurs outside of the criminal court system and doesn’t require a forfeiting party to have been convicted of a crime first.
The SPLC has released reports in recent years outlining what it describes as abuses of the civil forfeiture process by law enforcement. One such report noted that out of 1,100 forfeiture cases across Alabama in 2015, only 25 percent resulted in some kind of criminal conviction.
Speaking to Lagniappe last week, Shay Farley, the SPLC’s policy counsel in Alabama, said civil forfeiture is often defended for the money it generates for law enforcement agencies. However, she said “enforcing the law should be their motivator, not profits.”
“The government overreach that’s involved and the ability to leverage those assets against allege criminal action just doesn’t sit with our constitutional liberties or the practice of due process and property rights,” Farley said. “Our position is that it should be eliminated, leaving in place sufficient tools under the criminal process for law enforcement. Nothing short of this will protect the liberties of Alabamians.”
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