In July, the ACLU sued the Pinal County Attorney for their enforcement of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Those laws, and their disproportionate impact on the poor, have become a bipartisan concern across the state.
In the ACLU’s case, Pinal County law enforcement used what the ACLU referred to as an “unconstitutional scheme,” against Rhonda Cox, a Pinal County resident, when her used truck was seized after “a man with a long criminal history who was arrested for Burglary and Possession of Stolen Property,” according to Sheriff Paul Babeu.
According to Babeu, “the man was found with stolen truck parts attached to a truck in his possession and reported to be his truck. The circumstances of the crime caused the truck to be subject of a civil forfeiture proceeding. The Sheriff’s Office seized the truck in accordance with all state and federal laws and guidelines for civil forfeiture.”
At the time, Babeu, a constitutionalist did not defend the law; he only offered a defense for following it.
Current Arizona civil asset forfeiture law allows authorities to seize property, which can then be kept or sold by them, based only on the allegation of a crime. Due process is not afforded to the property owners.
Lawmakers are being urged to consider changing those laws.
The ACLU argued in its filings last month, that the “civil asset forfeiture was originally intended as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But Arizona’s law creates perverse, unfair, and unconstitutional incentives for law enforcement agencies around the state to seize and forfeit as much money and property from people as possible, regardless of whether they’re guilty of a crime.”
The ACLU claims “that in order to keep her truck, the State didn’t have to prove that she did anything wrong – let alone criminal. In addition, the County Attorney’s office informed Ms. Cox that the State’s civil asset forfeiture laws would doubly punish her if she pursued her claim and didn’t win—in the end, she would lose her truck and be required to pay the county’s attorneys’ fees and investigation costs, which would exceed the value of her truck. Ms. Cox couldn’t absorb the financial risk involved, so she was forced to withdraw her claim and give up her truck to the authorities,” according to the ACLU.
Since 2004, groups have been questioning the laws. According to the conservative Institute for Justice, “Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws are in need of serious reform.” The Goldwater Institute and the Institute For Justice issued the “Arizona Law Enforcement Confiscates $64.5 Million of Private Property, Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Need Reform” report, in which they claim that Arizona law threatened “to divert law enforcement priorities away from the fair administration of justice and toward the pursuit of property and profit in violation of both state and federal constitutional due process provisions, which guarantee that those responsible for enforcing the law must administer justice in an impartial manner.”
“A 1993 award-winning exposé of Arizona forfeiture law by Tribune reporter Mark Flatten revealed that only one-quarter of those who lost property in the forfeiture cases studied were ever charged with a crime. Similarly, one national study found that approximately 80 percent of persons whose property the federal government seized for forfeiture were never charged with a crime. Unfortunately, Arizona law does not require agencies authorized to forfeit property to compile these types of statistics—and the nature of this study did not lend itself to the Herculean task of updating the Tribune story.” ~ Arizona Law Enforcement Confiscates $64.5 Million of Private Property, Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Need Reform
Critics of Arizona’s laws say a decade is too long enough to wait for reforms. As the ACLU case winds its way through the court system, lawmakers like Arizona State Rep. Bob Thorpe are talking to constituents who want legislation that ensures due process by requiring that property seized by law enforcement be returned to the owner unless the seizure is ordered by the courts.