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New Alabama Law Protects Innocent Owners From Civil Forfeiture

Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill late Tuesday that strengthens safeguards against civil forfeiture, which lets the government seize and keep cash, cars, and other valuables without ever charging the owner with a crime. Alabama has long had some of the nation’s worst civil forfeiture laws, receiving a D- in a 2020 report by the Institute for Justice.

Under the new law, agencies are banned from seizing and forfeiting cash under $250 and vehicles valued at less than $5,000, while district attorneys can set those threshold levels even higher. Though civil forfeiture is often defended as a way to target drug kingpins, many forfeiture cases involve relatively small amounts. A 2018 report by Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that half of all cash seizures involved amounts under $1,372. 

“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property in Alabama,” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “By setting minimum dollar thresholds for currency and vehicles, Alabama becomes one of the very few states to address the problem of thousands of low-value seizures. This is an innovative reform because it is irrational for even the most innocent property owner to pay a lawyer to litigate the return of $250 or an old car.”

Co-sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Andrew Sorrell, SB 210 will:

  • Restore the presumption of innocence by requiring the government to show that owners are not innocent before taking title to their property. Similar requirements are found in 14 other states and the District of Columbia;
  • Ban officers from forcing owners to waive or relinquish their rights to property. Similar requirements are found in four other states; and
  • Prohibit state and local law enforcement from transferring seized property to the federal government, except for cases involving more than $10,000 in cash, through a federal program known as “adoptive” forfeiture. Over the past two decades, Alabama agencies collected more than $104 million in federal forfeiture funds.

SB 210 builds off of an earlier reform supported by organizations as diverse as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama District Attorneys Association and IJ, which created the state’s first reporting and transparency requirements for civil forfeiture. According to that inaugural report, Alabama law enforcement conducted 870 seizures in 2019, confiscating 186 vehicles and nearly $4.9 million in cash.

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