Alabama lawmakers this month received their first report as required under a 2019 law mandating that law enforcement agencies in the state account for property they seize from people accused of criminal wrongdoing.
The report shows agencies seized at least $4.8 million in cash and property in the last fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Of that, at least $2.4 million was gained through civil asset forfeiture rulings by the courts.
Civil asset forfeiture remains a controversial practice, especially as reform of law enforcement practices in general receive more scrutiny. Under civil forfeiture, the government may take someone’s property as soon as they are accused of a crime, without that person having been convicted or, in some cases, even charged.
Even when charges are dropped or the accused is found not guilty, those accused often find it difficult to get their property back. Some never do.
Although written into law and upheld by the courts, civil asset forfeiture is an affront to the notion that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This is a principle embedded not only in U.S. law, but in the centuries of English common law from which it sprang.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has been one of the few lawmakers to realize this and make it an issue. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to end civil asset forfeiture in Alabama.
According to the Institute for Justice, three states have abolished civil forfeiture entirely and now rely on criminal law for property forfeitures. Orr’s original bill would have made Alabama the fourth state to do this.
Additionally, 15 states require a criminal conviction before a person can lose property in a civil proceeding undertaken by the government.
Orr’s fallback bill, which is now law, was one requiring law enforcement agencies to keep track of their civil forfeitures. In addition to the number of civil proceedings and the amount seized, that law requires law enforcement to show how much of the forfeited property was taken from people who were not charged or convicted of crimes.
That data, however, is lacking from the report lawmakers received this month.
“I intend to formally request additional information as is delineated in the law,” Orr said last week. “I understand the report can be in summary form; however, it is necessary for policymakers 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.”
We, too, have high expectations. Even one person deprived of their property without having been found guilty of a crime, is an injustice. But if we can’t end it, we should at least know exactly how bad the problem is.