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Through my lens… Civil Asset Forfeiture

By: Walt Merrell

Much has been made of what is commonly referred to as “civil asset forfeiture” in the state of Alabama over the past few years. By way of brief explanation, there are certain statutes that allow the State, by and through the district attorney, to file a lawsuit to seize currency, personal property and/or real property that is used to facilitate crimes or were purchased with the proceeds of crimes. Typically, these lawsuits are filed to forfeit drug sale proceeds. Occasionally, these lawsuits are filed to seize illegal guns or vehicles use to facilitate felony offenses.

The argument against asset forfeiture is that it is a government intrusion into an individual’s right to possess property. I disagree. There should be no right to possess property illegally. If a doctor overcharged his patients, no one would question the fact that he ought to pay the patients back. Likewise, if a drug dealer profits $10,000 off the illegal sale of drugs, no one should question that he should not be able to retain those ill-gotten gains.

In 2020, this office filed three lawsuits to seize $9,170.68. Opponents of asset forfeiture assert that law enforcement across the state use this civil litigation as a tool to fund policing operations. Even a quick glance demonstrates that the amount the State seized in Covington County in 2020 is 1/10 of 1% of the, combined budget of the DA’s office and the Sheriff’s Office. The suggestion that asset forfeiture is used or abused for the purpose of funding law enforcement is absurd.

Statewide, there were over 150,000 arrests made in 2020. Of those, 90,000 arrests were for felonies. There were also over 1.1 million traffic tickets or warnings issued during that same timeframe. From those interactions, there were only 96 vehicles, 277 guns and approximately $3.4 million forfeited as being the proceeds of illegal activity. Those seizures were awarded to various state and/or local agencies after courts found that the evidence supported the forfeiture.

1,300 forfeiture cases as a result of 1.25 million interactions… that means that in 1/1000th of 1% of the cases where law enforcement encountered criminal activity, a seizure was filed. Such statistics hardly support any legitimate claim for an overzealous process.

The fact of the matter is, asset forfeiture is a very important tool used by law enforcement. For example, asset forfeiture has been used to condemn vehicles used in the commission of felony offenses and the proceeds of the sale of the vehicle distributed to the victim of the crime. Asset forfeiture has been used to recover stolen monies from defendant’s bank accounts and returned to the victims. Asset forfeiture has been used to take title to stolen goods that were later pawned as part of a fencing operation and returned to the victims.

Here in Covington County, we typically only seize money that we know was the proceeds of illegal drug sales. There is no good reason a drug dealer ought to get to reap the benefits of his immoral and illegal conduct.

Have there been occasions where this tool has been used egregiously in other parts of the State? Perhaps. But the number of any such egregious cases are a minuscule percentage of the sum total. The sum total equates to a great benefit for the victims of crime in Alabama and the law enforcement agencies sworn to protect them.

The legislature contemplates effectively eliminating asset forfeiture as we know it. Should they approve Senate Bill 210/House Bill 394 as it now stands, they will truly take a step towards defunding police, albeit a small one, and depriving victims of the opportunity to recoup some of their losses.

Contact your senator or representative and let them know that you don’t think criminals ought to be able to keep the benefits of their crimes.