For some unfortunate Americans stopped by municipal police, a routine traffic stop can turn into a costly confiscation of private property then used to fund local enforcement agencies. Arizona’s Civil Forfeiture laws, allowing police to seize – and then keep or sell – any property they allege is involved in a crime, create unfair incentives for law enforcement to seize and forfeit as much money and property from people as possible. Though this unconstitutional act has become part of the American legal landscape, the ACLU is working to change these laws and make sure this exploitative scheme ends.

In Arizona, the ACLU is working on important legislative changes, including lobbying for a bill sponsored by Representative Bob Thorpe that requires a conviction before civil forfeiture is granted. The ACLU believes that many reforms should be considered that include: creating a minimal value so that some property isn’t subject to forfeiture at all; creating a system with greater protections, and doing away with uncontested forfeiture. The ACLU of Arizona continues to focus on this issue, and will push for greater changes in the 2017 legislative session.

Arizona ranks nationally as one of the worst states for expecting that your personal property is protected from unlawful government seizure. As it stands today, the Grand Canyon State has the lowest standard of proof for a law enforcement official before they can decide to take your property. Meanwhile, the burden of proving that the officer unjustly seized your belongings lies with you- whereas in all other instances of law the burden of proof is on the accuser.

Law enforcement departments are also incentivized to abuse their abilities to seize personal property. Since the burden of recovering the property is on the owner, the cost of litigation is also on the property owner. Unless the owner is completely successful in recovering their items, they are usually left with the bill for both their legal expenses and the department’s. All the while, proceeds from property taken by the department goes- in most cases- completely to the department. So, it stands to reason that with a minimal risk of legal expenses, a very low standard of proof and clear tangible gains, departments across the state can protect and serve a community that doubles as a personal yard sale.

In the last 15 years, Arizona law enforcement has taken more than $500 million through civil asset forfeiture abuse. Furthermore, the departments have recognized their opportunity and have capitalized on it exponentially. In 2000, departments seized $9.3 million but in 2014 they took more than $36 million from citizens.

The ACLU of Arizona is working through the courts to rein these abuses to basic civil liberties, but insist on going through the legislature to come up with a more permanent solution. Our proposed legislative goals set boundaries for law enforcement while protecting citizens and add a layer of accountability to departments.  

Our legislation would require that civil asset forfeiture can only be conducted after a conviction. The ACLU believes that many reforms should be considered that include: creating a minimal value so that some property isn’t subject to forfeiture at all; creating a system with greater protections, and doing away with uncontested forfeiture. The ACLU of Arizona continues to focus on this issue, and will push for greater changes in the 2017 legislative session.

 

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