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Asset forfeiture: inherently abusive, and awful in Alabama

Graphic: Walker Miller / Yellowhammer News

 

 

On one of the few issues on which Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dead wrong, his home state of Alabama allows and even encourages the wrong to reach epic proportions.

The issue is “civil asset forfeiture,” the practice in which law-enforcement agencies seize property of those accused of a crime – and then, in practice make it very difficult for the owner to regain his own property even if never found guilty of the crime.

Sessions, going against major trends among conservative opinion leaders, strongly supports asset forfeiture as a “key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed.”

He issued an order earlier this year re-expanding the use of asset forfeiture by federal agents, while supposedly strengthening safeguards against abuse of the practice.

Yet, as several recent articles at al.com have shown, those abuses can be mind-boggling, especially in Alabama. One town uses a “speed trap” not just to generate outlandish fines but also to seize property in addition to the fines – and then almost never return it. In another instance, police seized computers from a repair shop under what apparently was a false tip that the shop was a front for a computer theft ring, but the shop owner has been unable so far to recover his (or his customers’) items. (Read the articles here and here.)

As the most recent story reported, “laws in Alabama allow law enforcement to keep 100 percent of proceeds from civil asset forfeiture, according to a report from the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va. law firm and legal think tank. In Alabama, there is no requirement to collect or record information on those that the assets were taken from.”

There will be much more to say on this subject in the future, but for now let it be known that these practices will be coming under increasing, well-merited scrutiny, especially in abusive instances such as those reported by al.com. There are plenty of legal theorists who believe that asset forfeiture as widely practiced is a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. I would argue even farther, that when the abuses are as great as the ones in the “speed trap” story, the conduct of the police or city officials themselves may qualify as criminal. They should be punished accordingly.

Again, this topic bears journalistic treatment both more in-depth and more nuanced than today’s column provides. But let this be known: No matter how strongly conservatives do and should support tough-minded law enforcement, conservatives also believe in individual rights, especially property rights. Sheriffs or police chiefs out there who think this conservative state makes them immune to criticism and possibly sanction should think again.

Meanwhile, legislators in this coming year’s session should make reform of asset-forfeiture laws and policies a major priority. A public storm is gathering against abusive officials at every level of government. Legislators who pay no attention to the tempest might just get wind-blown right out of office.

Yellowhammer Contributing Editor Quin Hillyer, of Mobile, also is a Contributing Editor for National Review Online, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.