FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, and the law firm Perkins Coie filed suit today against the sheriff and county attorney of Pinal County, Arizona, for their enforcement of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws. They used this scheme against Rhonda Cox, a county resident, to seize and keep her truck, violating her constitutional rights. After Cox, an innocent owner, filed a claim to get her truck back, the county attorney’s office informed her that if she pursued her claim and lost, not only would she lose her truck, but the state’s forfeiture laws would require her to pay the county’s attorneys’ fees and investigation costs, an amount that would exceed the value of her truck. Since she couldn’t risk so much financial loss, Cox was forced to abandon her efforts to retrieve her truck.
“Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws gave Pinal County license to steal from Rhonda Cox,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “That would be bad enough, but those laws also made it impossible for her to have a fair shot at challenging that theft in court. The county robbed Rhonda twice: first they took her truck, then they took her day in court.”
Cox, who works as a sales administrator, had spent months seeking the return of her $6,000 used pickup truck from the Pinal County attorney. The truck had originally been seized by sheriff deputies because her 20-year-old son borrowed it one night and replaced the hood and cover with stolen parts. Cox had no connection to the theft and didn’t know about it until the deputies told her they had arrested her son. Although she owned the truck and was innocent of the crime, the deputies refused to return her property.
Unable to afford an attorney, Rhonda did her best to research and file the correct papers to get her truck back. When her requests were denied, she paid a $304 fee to initiate an official claim in court. But she had to give up when the deputy county attorney told her about being liable for the county’s expenditures.
“For decades, law enforcement agencies have used Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws to grab as much money and property as possible,” said Jean-Jacques Cabou, a partner at Perkins Coie. “These laws create perverse, unfair, and unconstitutional incentives for law enforcement to build multimillion-dollar slush funds. They spend this money virtually at will, with no meaningful oversight.”
The county attorney and sheriff put the money they accumulate through forfeiture laws to a wide variety of uses: salaries, overtime pay, retirement funds, upkeep of the county attorney’s home security system, and much more.
In addition to this filing in Arizona, the ACLU is working to reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws. Also, ACLU affiliates in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and other states have been advocating for reform of their states’ laws.