A recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision is expected to limit the amount of cash, property and other assets police can seize when they believe those items were used in a crime, but state prosecutors say Alabama has already followed similar guidelines for years.
The SCOTUS decision in Timbs v. Indiana stemmed from what could have been a very unremarkable criminal case. Tyson Timbs was found in possession of around $400 worth of heroin and ultimately pleaded guilty to distributing a controlled substance.
However, at the time of Timbs’ arrest, police seized a Land Rover SUV he’d purchased for $42,000 using money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The police contended that Timbs had used the vehicle to transport the heroin he was dealing.
Through a practice known as civil forfeiture, police can seek to claim a suspect property — even before they’ve been convicted — if they suspect that property was purchased using income from illegal activity or, as was the assumption in Timbs’ case, used to conduct illegal activity.
How Timbs used his Land Rover turned out to be irrelevant, though, after a circuit court and the Indiana Court of Criminal Appeals denied the state’s request to seize the SUV because its cost greatly exceeded the maximum criminal fine allowed under the law Timbs admitted to violating.
The Indiana Supreme Court overturned those rulings, but SCOTUS reversed their decision and held that because the seizure was “grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense,” it was unconstitutional under the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment.
That legal principle had been used to govern forfeiture proceedings in federal court for years now, but with last week’s ruling, SCOTUS has effectively applied it to state courts across the country — where the majority of forfeiture proceedings take place.
Though there were some varying concurring opinions on how best to apply the law, the Timbs decision was a rare unanimous vote for a high court often divided along political lines.
While it may impact other states, Barry Matson, head of the Alabama District Attorneys Association (ADAA), claimed Alabama has “been ahead of the curve” in this area, and told Lagniappe the Timbs decision “brought everyone else around the country to where we’ve been since 1999.”
“In Alabama, criminal sanctions are required to be proportional to the underlying criminal activity under the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment and also the Alabama Constitution,” Matson said following the SCOTUS decision. “For almost 20 years, the state courts of Alabama have held this protection applies to forfeiture proceedings.”
The ruling has been celebrated by those who’ve advocated for civil forfeiture reforms, but others are worried the system remains ripe for abuse — especially in states like Alabama, which doesn’t limit the type of property that can be seized or require law enforcement agencies to keep comprehensive records showing what they confiscate, what it’s worth or what they do with it.
While proceedings are supposed to be adjudicated in open court, there is no way to track them without knowing which cases include efforts to seize assets. Similarly, departments have revenues from asset seizures audited, but details of those profits aren’t released to the public.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Matson acknowledged that even though the information is technically available, tracking it down would require a lot work from members of the public.
“Everything is already public, whether it’s in court filings or through the sale of assets at a public auction, but I recognize the fact that they’re in a hundred different locations,” Matson said. “Any time a government takes something, it ought to be publicly accessible — easily accessible, I think.”
That’s one of the reasons Matson says the ADAA supported a bill that would have required law enforcement agencies to to document, compile and release reports on all property they seize, where it was seized and the underlying criminal offense or conviction that led to the seizure.
“We are 100 percent supportive of data collection and transparency,” Matson said. “We worked through that process last year and had a deal but, procedurally, it died at the end of the session.”
Matson was referring to a watered-down version of legislation introduced in 2018 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-District 3. It originally sought to entirely prevent civil forfeiture in the absence of a criminal conviction, which ADA and other law enforcement organizations strongly opposed.
Orr has said he plans to introduce a similar “transparency” bill in the upcoming session. In the meantime, such groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and The Heritage Foundation have continued to push for legislators to reform Alabama’s current civil forfeiture laws.
Recently Samuel Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said in an interview with The Root that the SCOTUS decision in Timbs v. Indiana dosen’t address those continuing concerns.
“SPLC and others have documented over and again how civil asset forfeiture is used to seize assets — homes, cars, cash — without any conviction, even after exonerations,” Brooke said. “[This ruling] simply creates a means for lawyers to better contest those illegal civil asset forfeitures. But to the individual who cannot afford an attorney, they are in the same situation.”
Matson, however, has criticized some of SPLC’s claims about civil forfeiture cases in Alabama, and claimed one of the organization’s recent reports contains incomplete and sometimes “blatantly false” information about a number of cases where assets were seized by police.
Released in 2018, that report analyzed more than 1,100 forfeiture cases brought by 70 law enforcement agencies in 14 Alabama counties in 2015. According to the SPLC, $2.2 million was awarded in 827 of those cases — 25 percent of which never resulted in a criminal conviction.
However, Matson has said some cases don’t result in charges because they involve suspects that profited from an illegal activity, but wound up cooperating with police. Even though they might avoid charges, he said, prosecutors can’t just return money a suspect earned illegally.
While he doesn’t care for SPLC’s narrative, Matson does agree more transparency is needed in the civil forfeiture process. He also said ADAA would continue pushing for those reforms in 2019.
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