Is it legal for the government to take your personal property away because it was used in connection with a crime — even if you personally had nothing to do with the crime and were never even charged with an offense (let alone convicted)? That’s the question that a class action lawsuit filed recently in the United States District Court of Alabama’s Northern District on behalf of hundreds of potential litigants.
The woman at the heart of the lawsuit, through her attorney, claims that the state’s civil asset forfeiture program is in violation of at least three amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The woman was staying with a friend while she was separated from her husband. Meanwhile, her car was seized as part of a drug trafficking bust. She was nowhere near the scene and had no idea her car was being used for drug activity. That didn’t stop the state, however, from keeping the car under laws that were meant to punish drug traffickers and deprive them of assets and ill-gotten goods — not punish ordinary people who are, arguably, victims themselves.
The Alabama Attorney General’s office has yet to respond to the lawsuit, which claims that the state’s program for civil asset forfeiture:
- Deprives citizens of the ability to challenge a seizure in a timely hearing with a neutral decision-maker
- Permits a conflict of interest by the state and local law enforcement departments that both directly press civil forfeiture actions and profit from them
- Imposes excessive fines on the citizens of the state in the form of legal fees to try to reclaim their property and by virtue of depriving them of the property itself
This is the latest move in a fierce legal pushback against civil forfeiture laws not only in Alabama but elsewhere in the country. Many in the legal community view civil forfeiture laws as a system running amuck and trampling the rights of innocent people with impunity.
If you’ve been victimized by asset forfeiture laws, find out what you can do to fight back and regain your property.