Police officers exercise civil asset forfeiture when they believe property like cars, cash or more is in some way associated with a crime. Frequently used across both Alabama and the rest of the country, an important question has recently surfaced: when is such seizure excessive?

NPR detailed the case of an Indiana man who served criminal penalties for selling a small amount of heroin, yet was still unable to recover his seized Land Rover. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where justices agreed that such forfeiture did not reflect the crimes committed. While the Indiana man won his Supreme Court case, determining when a fine is excessive is still undecided.

Deciding on a case-by-case basis

The Indiana case argued that the seizure of the Land Rover was an excessive fine. This is in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, there is no current set definition of what is excessive. Rather, courts determine excessive property seizure on a case-by-case basis.

When police seize the property of a suspected criminal, they do so based on what property they believe bears some connection to the crime. Contesting this seizure is complicated and making matters even thornier, pursuing a civil case can be expensive. Because of this, some prosecutors decide that fighting the case is not worth the expense. In other cases, the property owner may decide that the cost of the legal battle exceeds the value of the seized property.

Alabama laws slowly shift

Current Alabama laws heavily burden property owners. Additionally, the Institute for Justice reports that the state has no way to measure or record the extent of how often police officers use civil asset forfeiture.

Alabama lawmakers seek to change this by adjusting the state’s current policy to require more transparency. A May vote in the Alabama Senate resulted in senators voting unanimously for a bill that requires police officers to report how often they use civil asset forfeiture when the person in question has not yet been convicted of a crime. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.

Defining excessive property seizure remains unclear. However, the proposed changes to state law mark a step forward in working toward more transparent property seizure laws. If you were the victim of civil asset forfeiture, work with an attorney to determine your options to recover your property.