FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Legislative Hearing on Civil Forfeiture Reform
Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 9:00 am
House Government and Higher Education Committee
House Hearing Room 1
PHOENIX—An unprecedented array of public interest organizations—including ACLU of Arizona, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Arizona Citizens Defense League, Goldwater Institute, Institute for Justice, Los Abogados, NFIB, and Public Integrity Alliance—have banded together as the Coalition for Arizona Forfeiture Reform to support reform of Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws. The Coalition will be testifying before the House Government and Higher Education Committee to inform legislators about civil forfeiture and the nationwide, bipartisan steps being taken to implement necessary reforms.
If law enforcement suspects that you committed a crime, they can arrest you and put you on trial. At trial, prosecutors must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But if law enforcement suspects your property is linked to a crime, they can seize it even if they don’t charge you—or anyone else—with a crime. If you want your property back, you will have to prove your innocence. Exacerbating these problems, law enforcement gets to keep up to 100 percent of what they take, which can warp law enforcement priorities and lead to questionable or even illegal spending of public funds.
Welcome to the upside-down world of civil forfeiture.
According to the Institute for Justice’s national report card on civil forfeiture, most states fail to protect property owners from unjust forfeitures, but Arizona’s laws are among the very worst, earning a D-. Arizona forfeiture laws threaten both due process and property rights. They provide a low bar for forfeiture and do not require a criminal conviction—or even criminal charges—before property can be taken. They do not protect innocent owners, and worse, they actually penalize people who fight back against unjust forfeitures. They leave law enforcement free to keep everything they take. And because the spending of forfeiture proceeds is not subject to meaningful checks or reporting requirements, there is a history of questionable and even illegal uses of public funds.
Arizona law enforcement has taken more than $500 million through civil forfeiture in the last 15 years. And that amount grows faster and faster each year—from $9.3 million in 2000 to more than $36 million in 2014 in just state forfeitures. On top of that, Arizona law enforcement takes in millions more in federal “equitable sharing” forfeiture.
Ongoing civil rights lawsuits highlight the threats to due process and property rights under Arizona’s forfeiture laws:
Cox v. Voyles – Rhonda Cox’s truck was seized by Pinal County officials when her son was arrested. Although only Rhonda owned the truck and she had no connection to or knowledge of any illegal activity, Pinal County tried to forfeit her truck. Rhonda had to prove her own innocence to get her truck back but could not afford an attorney. When she went to court by herself, Pinal County threatened that if she was less than 100 percent successful, they would impose their attorney fees and costs on her to make an example of her and discourage others from fighting back. This led the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona, and the law firm of Perkins Coie to sue various Pinal County officials. Since the lawsuit was initiated, additional revelations about the use and abuse of forfeiture funds—especially Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu’s use of funds to self-promote while he is campaigning for Congress—have come to light.
Torres v. Goddard – The Arizona Attorney General’s Office seized thousands of wire transfers sent via Western Union. These seizures were not directed at specific people, but rather were based on “profiling” the times, locations, and amounts of the transfers. These seizures obviously impacted innocent people, but the Attorney General required innocent transferors to justify their transfers to get their money back. If the Attorney General was not convinced, the money was sent to a separate bank account and the Attorney General brought civil forfeiture proceedings against the money. A group of innocent transferors sued for the unconstitutional seizure of their money.
Civil forfeiture—both nationwide and in Arizona—is exploding. Every year, police and prosecutors take more and more cash and property from people without so much as charging them with a crime. That is why—both nationwide and in Arizona—local and national organizations from across the political spectrum have come together to support forfeiture reform.
Many states are beginning to enact reforms to protect the innocent. In 2014 and 2015, Minnesota, Nevada, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., all passed crucial forfeiture reforms. In 2015, New Mexico enacted a landmark law that abolished civil forfeiture entirely. And so far in 2016, both Wyoming and Florida—where reforms passed the House and Senate unanimously—have reformed their laws.
Reform in Arizona is desperately needed. It may be too late for the Legislature to protect Arizonans from forfeiture abuse this year, but the Legislature should join the reform movement in 2017. The Coalition for Arizona Forfeiture Reform will continue to push for reform, because no one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement should not profit from taking people’s property.