For those concerned that the practice of seizing personal property that was allegedly obtained through illegal means or used in illegal activity may be abused by law enforcement agencies, a recent announcement by the Alabama District Attorneys Association is welcome news. The group announced the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System, which will provide a statewide database as well as public reporting on civil asset forfeitures.
Those who have been advocating for such a system expect it to bring some transparency to civil asset forfeitures in Alabama. State lawmakers had sought unsuccessfully to pass legislation that would require such public reporting.
One Shelby County legislator behind that bill said about the announcement this month, “The new voluntary database will clearly shine daylight on forfeiture activity in our state and allow Alabama legislators to legitimately evaluate and determine whether individual rights have been violated and then to take those necessary corrective actions.” The group anticipates that the database will be functioning within just weeks.
An official with the Alabama District Attorneys Association says they hope that this new reporting will show patterns of unusual forfeiture activity. An official with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice — one of the groups that has expressed concern about the abuse of the system — cautions, however, “Having the data doesn’t fix the problem.”
That group, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) studied over 1,000 cases from 2015 that involved civil asset forfeitures. They say their findings indicated that African-Americans were disproportionately impacted. Further, forfeitures were often used against people charged with minor offenses as opposed to serious crimes like drug trafficking.
Under the law, fines (including civil asset forfeiture) for criminal activity are supposed to be proportionate to the seriousness of the activity. However, many who advocate for criminal justice reform argue that too often that’s not the case with these forfeitures.
The best defense against civil asset forfeiture is being proactive. If you learn that your assets may be seized, an experienced attorney can work to protect your rights.