J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 11, 2019

Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Forfeiture Information Reporting Act (SB 191) late Monday, which will shine a light on law enforcement’s often secretive use of civil forfeiture. Without ever charging the owner with a crime, police and prosecutors can seize cash, cars, and other valuables, and if the property is forfeited, keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds. Prior to reform, Alabama received failing grades across the board on six separate metrics for forfeiture transparency and accountability, according to a report by the Institute for Justice.

But under SB 191, agencies must report the date, description, and location of the seizure, the agency involved, any arrests connected with the seizure, any claimants, and the disposition of property, as well as the proceeds agencies collected from the forfeiture property. Agencies’ seizure and forfeiture activity, along with the amount of proceeds received, will be aggregated into an annual report by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center Commission and made available online. In addition, law enforcement’s civil forfeiture funds will now be audited.

“By itself, improved transparency cannot fix the fundamental problems with civil forfeiture—namely, the property rights abuses it permits and the temptation it creates to police for profit,” noted Jennifer McDonald, an IJ research analyst who co-authored the transparency report.  “Though limited, the Alabama Forfeiture Information Reporting Act is a welcome first step for keeping both the public and legislators well-informed about civil forfeiture in Alabama.”

Sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, SB 191 largely tracks what has been collected by the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System, a voluntary reporting database that was announced earlier this year by the Alabama District Attorneys Association. But both systems largely do not cover how Alabama agencies spend their forfeiture money, which is generated and spent outside the normal appropriations process and evades public scrutiny.

The importance of collecting data is further underscored by a new study from the Institute for Justice, which indicates that forfeiture doesn’t help police fight crime, but rather is a source of revenue for law enforcement. The IJ report, “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue? Testing Opposing Views of Forfeiture,” combines local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources with more than a decade’s worth of data from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. Equitable sharing lets state and local law enforcement cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other DOJ agencies on forfeiture cases and receive up to 80% of the proceeds. Between 2000 and 2013, Alabama agencies collected more than $75 million in equitable sharing funding from the DOJ.

Specifically, the study finds:

  • More forfeiture proceeds do not translate into more crimes solved, despite claims forfeiture gives law enforcement more resources to fight crime.
  • More forfeiture proceeds also do not mean less drug use, even though forfeiture supposedly rids the streets of drugs by crippling drug dealers and cartels financially.
  • When local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment—a standard proxy for fiscal stress—is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.

“This study shows Alabama policymakers can undertake serious and much-needed forfeiture reforms without jeopardizing police effectiveness,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “This study also confirms what experienced legislators in Alabama have long known: The state’s forfeiture laws encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of public safety and justice. In the next session, we urge the Alabama Legislature to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. The legislature should also end forfeiture’s perverse financial incentives and direct forfeiture proceeds to neutral accounts.”

With the governor’s signature, Alabama is now the 23rd state that has enacted new reporting requirements to track seizures and forfeitures since 2014. Alabama also joins 32 other states that have reform their civil forfeiture laws more broadly. In February, IJ secured a landmark victory in Timbs v. Indiana, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state civil forfeiture cases are bound by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines.”