On Friday, a federal court ruled that a far-reaching lawsuit challenging the profit motive at the core of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture law can move forward because the plaintiff has properly asserted that policing for profit violates her constitutional rights.
The ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona, and the law firm Perkins Coie filed the case against the Pinal County Sheriff, the Pinal County Attorney, and other Pinal County officials for their enforcement of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws.
Arizona law allows law enforcement to seize — and then keep or sell — property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be charged with or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.
In this case, Pinal County law enforcement used this unconstitutional scheme against Rhonda Cox, an innocent county resident, to seize and keep her truck. Ms. Cox sued, arguing that the policing for profit law violates her due process rights and seeking to prevent the sheriff and county attorney from enforcing the law against her ever again. U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa, formerly the top federal prosecutor in Arizona, ruled Friday that the claims at the heart of Ms. Cox’s case will move forward, even though the defendants sought to have the whole case thrown out of court.
Arizona State Representative Bob Thorpe stated, “I have been working on legislation for several years to address problems with Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) and RICO laws, and we were successful in enacting reforms this year. Some Arizona counties, like Coconino, do a very good job managing these programs and funds with oversight, however other Arizona law enforcement agencies have abused these programs and funds. Additionally, prosecutors have apparently used CAF funds as political gifts, in violation of state gift clauses, and to enrich their budgets without having the authority to directly appropriate funds, or the oversight to spend the money strictly for legitimate law enforcement purposes. What a slap in the face, when a citizen has lost their property in civil court through CAF, and then law enforcement irresponsibly spends that money on toy radio controlled airplanes, tux rentals and to hire mind-readers for entertainment. This certainly appears to be an abuse of the public trust. When an Arizona citizen is arrested for a criminal offense, they should be charged in criminal court, not in civil court, where there is a strong temptation to simply confiscate a citizen’s property for bureaucratic financial gain. This is reminiscent of the classic stories of Robin Hood, who fought against the corrupt abuses of the Sheriff of Nottingham and the King of England, who were fleecing the poor for financial gain.”
“For too long, Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws have motivated law enforcement officials to line their pockets rather than fight crime,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The court’s order is a huge step towards protecting our client from this perverse system that is fundamentally incompatible with the right to have due process before the government can deprive you of your property.”
“The court’s ruling pointed to numerous specific pieces of evidence offered in Ms. Cox’s lawsuit that show the unconstitutional profit motive inherent in Arizona’s forfeiture laws – a motive that has long corrupted the work of law enforcement in our state,” said Jean-Jacques Cabou, a partner at Perkins Coie in Phoenix. “We’re confident that our upcoming discovery will reveal even more about these unconstitutional laws and the practice of policing for profit in Arizona.”
Explicitly rejecting defendants’ arguments that Ms. Cox’s lawsuit failed to properly allege that county officials did anything legally wrong, Judge Humetewa cited several documents filed by Ms. Cox that “[b]olster” the argument forfeiture laws provide a financial incentive for law enforcement. For example, the order notes that “[a]n excerpt from a forfeiture training stat[es] ‘when your bosses can’t find any money in their budget they get depressed. When they get depressed they tell you to start doing forfeiture cases … When you feel like a winner you go back to your jurisdiction and just start seizing everything in sight.’” The order also notes that Ms. Cox “specifically identified how defendant Voyles used the forfeiture proceeds … to fund ‘pet projects’ including many that provide[d] favorable exposure to him amongst his [former] constituents.”
Judge Humetewa recognized that U.S. Supreme Court precedent “implie[s] that there is a limit” “‘on a financial or personal interest of one who performs a prosecutorial function,’” and she concluded that Ms. Cox’s “complaint sets out a plausible claim for violation of her due process rights in the enforcement of the Arizona forfeiture statutes because Defendants have a financial incentive to zealously enforce the forfeiture laws.”
The Judge’s Order on the Motions to Dismiss is at: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/cox-v-voyles-et-al-judges-order-motions-dismiss