Less than one month after IJ teamed up with Terry and Ria Platt, an innocent elderly couple who had their car seized by Arizona law enforcement, we received news that Navajo County prosecutors would return the car. Little do they know that while we are celebrating this victory, it is only the start of our fight to abolish Arizona’s forfeiture laws.
Arizona’s forfeiture laws are so highly complex that understanding them is a struggle for attorneys, let alone the average person. Property owners face a rigged system where each turn can lead to a dead end. Owners have only 30 days to either petition the prosecutor to reconsider the forfeiture or ask permission to go to court to fight back. This process requires them to file complicated legal documents with a lot of information—many times without the help of a lawyer. Owners who miss the deadline or fail to comply with the legal requirements lose their property forever. Many times, the prosecutor—not a judge—decides what property to give back and what to keep. And Arizona law allows law enforcement to keep 100 percent of what they forfeit, giving them a direct financial incentive to seize as much property and cash as possible.
No one knows this better than Terry and Ria Platt. Navajo County prosecutors have been using this system to keep the Platts from having their day in court. The Platts had their car seized after police pulled over their son—who does not own the car—for a window tint violation. The police found cash and a small amount of personal-use marijuana, both of which the son said were his. Even though Arizona law does not allow forfeiture of a car under such circumstances, the government still tried to take it.
Terry and Ria received a notice in the mail a few weeks after the seizure telling them the prosecutors would try to forfeit the car. They mailed back the paperwork before the 30-day window closed. But the Platts had unknowingly fallen into a trap called “uncontested forfeiture,” a type of administrative forfeiture in which there is no judge, only a prosecutor. The prosecutor refused to consider their petition. He declared it “null and void” and filed an application for forfeiture. That prohibited the Platts from fighting the forfeiture and granted the government a lower burden of proof, virtually assuring that Terry and Ria would be permanently stripped of their property rights. Much of what Arizona law enforcement takes in through civil forfeiture is taken using such procedures.
That is why IJ got involved to get the Platts back their car. We also filed a separate civil rights lawsuit against every agency that was trying to profit from the forfeiture of the Platts’ car.
Once IJ was involved, the prosecutors quickly changed their tune. They dismissed the forfeiture and will return the car. But the prosecutors insist that they did nothing wrong and that they can legally do to people exactly what they did to the Platts. Moreover, Arizona law gives prosecutors seven years to again try to forfeit the car.
Even though the Platts will get their car back and this specific forfeiture proceeding is over—a clear victory—we will continue our lawsuit to strike down the system and laws that allowed this to happen.