Civil asset forfeiture reform is overdue in many states. Currently, 19 states require a criminal conviction for forfeiture, 16 require a criminal conviction to forfeit property in civil court, and 3 have abolished forfeiture. That is tremendous progress, but leaves plenty of work to be done.
Arizona is one state that still allows authorities to take property from innocent parties, and the process to attempt to get that property back is complex, and the window to act is short.
Arizona lawmakers had a chance to fix this with Senate Bill 1556, which ATR strongly supported. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth (R–Gilbert), would have required that a person be convicted of a crime before law enforcement can attempt forfeiture, with some reasonable exceptions, like if a defendant fled the state. Another change the bill would have made is that the state would no longer be able to seize the property of people who didn’t know their assets were used in the commission of a crime. In a system where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, these changes are reasonable and long overdue.
Despite passing the Senate unanimously earlier in the year, the House recently rejected the bill. Incredibly, it was unanimous Democratic opposition that killed the legislation.
Why would Democrats vote to give police the power to take innocent peoples’ property? According to the Arizona Capitol Times, Rep. Kirsten Engel (D-Tucson) admitted that the status quo leads to abuses by law enforcement, but “she could not support such a change without also finding a way to ensure that counties have the money they need.”
Basically, Democrats said that even though the system tramples on individual rights it should remain in place because it generates money for the government. In other words, they think the state should be allowed to steal from people because they budgeted around it.
Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich falsely claimed the bill would have prevented prosecutors from putting a lien on a suspected criminal’s property. Basically, their argument was the bill would have allowed criminals to liquidate their assets before they are officially convicted of a crime, thus preventing the state from being able to seize property until it is too late. However, as Sen. Farnsworth noted, this is simply untrue. His bill would have allowed prosecutors to place liens on property, but they would have to show said property is evidence in a pending case—in other words, prosecutors would not be permitted to target assets unrelated to the crime in question.
A study by the Institute for Justice found that most forfeitures in Arizona involve small sums of money—56 percent were for less than $1,000, and only 20 percent of defendants contesting forfeiture had attorneys. This means that the system is mostly used to target individuals, not large drug cartels or big-time criminals as forfeiture’s defenders claim.
The study also found that although the government almost always wins forfeiture cases, less than half of forfeitures are tied to a criminal conviction. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, forfeiture is almost never used to compensate victims of crimes. In 2018, victims were compensated in four of the 1,469 forfeiture cases statewide, meaning this happens less than .3 percent of the time.
Despite all this, and the reality that minority communities are often the target of asset forfeitures, Democrats said no, no due process, no right to your property, no innocent until proven guilty. If we need the money, injustice is fine.
Especially in light of recent events, there is no excuse not to pass this reform next session.