Recently, the Alabama legislature has been attempting to modify the states civil forfeiture laws, but, as reported by AL.com, those efforts failed recently when the reform bill was voted down.
Civil forfeiture is a type of action in Alabama whereby law enforcement can file litigation to take property and assets (including cash) from a person they believe to be involved in criminal activity, and that the property or asset being taken was paid for with money from criminal activity, or that the property is assisting the criminal activity. For instance, police can seize a drug-dealer’s car if they believe the car is used to transport drugs or can seize the dealer’s cash if believed to be from drug sales.
This seems fair and just because criminals should not be able to reap the benefits of their unlawful activity. However, this process can be abused at times, and a recent Forbes article highlights how this sort of litigation can be used simply to take property away from people without any criminal case being filed. Some of the most glaring statistics include the fact that Madison County authorities did not lose a single forfeiture case in 2015, and state authorities won more than 80% of forfeiture cases throughout the entire state that year. Additionally, 14% of the forfeiture cases in Madison County had no accompanying criminal case; a figure that rises to 25% when aggregated statewide. Finally, 72% of the forfeiture cases in Madison County for 2015 were filed against African Americans, even though the county’s population is only 24% black.
In an effort to cut out the abuse of forfeiture actions, the proposed new bill would have changed the entire landscape of forfeiture litigation. The primary change would require that there be an actual criminal conviction before any type of property forfeiture could take place. As of now, a criminal case doesn’t have to be filed, much less prosecuted for a conviction. Of course, the new bill provides exceptions to move forward with forfeiture action if a criminal conviction was not secured because of the defendant’s death, deportation, failure to appear, etc.
The proposed forfeiture bill increased the burden of proof on the State to show that the property is due to be forfeited by “clear and convincing” evidence rather than just by a “preponderance of the evidence”. But, the State still retains significant leverage in this process and is entitled to seize the property they want to forfeit prior to the final determination made by a judge in order to ensure that the defendant doesn’t hide or waste or ruin the particular asset sought by the State. Even if that asset is lost or destroyed, the new bill allowed for the State to ask for substitute property of equal value to be seized. This means that cash, assets, or real property not connected to criminal activity can be forfeited to substitute and replace the assets or property that was connected but cannot be located or is destroyed. The proposed new legislation would have also required more transparency in how the assets or money seized from forfeiture is used and to track other statistics relating to the seizure and persons involved.
If you have been the subject of a civil asset forfeiture, it is vital to speak with an attorney quickly to determine your legal options and best course of action.