MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Feb. 7, 2020) – A bill filed in the Alabama House would end civil asset forfeiture, and start the process of withdrawing the state from a federal program that allows police to circumvent more strict state forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the feds.

Rep. Andrew Sorrell (R-Muscle Shoals) filed House Bill 120 (HB120) on Feb 4. The legislation would effectively end civil asset forfeiture in Alabama and replace it with a criminal forfeiture process. Under the proposed law, the state could not complete the forfeiture process without a criminal conviction in virtually all cases.

Passage of the bill would also take big steps towards closing a loophole that allows state and local police to get around more strict state asset forfeiture laws in a vast majority of situations. This is particularly important in light of a policy directive issued in July 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The legislation builds on a law signed by Gov. Kay Ivey last June, imposing strict reporting requirements for all asset forfeitures in the state, including the federal program.

FEDERAL LOOPHOLE

A federal program known as “Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. The DOJ directive reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.

Law enforcement agencies can circumvent more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. However, when states merely withdraw from participation, the federal directive loses its impact.

Until recently, California faced this situation. The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.

HB120 directly addresses the federal equitable sharing program. It reads, in part:

“A law enforcement agency or participant in a joint task force with the federal government or other multijurisdictional collaboration with the federal government shall not accept payment of any kind or distribution of forfeiture proceeds or property resulting from a joint task force with the federal government or other multijurisdictional collaboration with the federal government unless the aggregate net equity value of the property or currency forfeited in a case exceeds one hundred thousand dollars.”

The vast majority of forfeiture cases fall below that $100,000 threshold. Over the last five years, 85 percent of the $2 million in seizures received through the federal equitable sharing program did not even meet half that threshold, according to the Colorado Municipal League, Additionally, IJ reports that 82 percent of proceeds received through the DOJ’s equitable sharing program came from joint task forces and investigations.

WHAT’S NEXT

HB120 has been assigned to the House State Government Committee, where it will need to pass by a majority vote before moving forward.


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