Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement
State Forfeiture Laws
Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws are among the worst in the nation, earning a D- grade. To forfeit property, the government need only demonstrate to the court’s “reasonable satisfaction”—essentially, by a preponderance of the evidence—that the property is related to criminal activity. Owners who object that they are innocent—and therefore that the property should not be forfeited—bear the burden of proving their innocence, unless the property at issue is real property, such as a home; in real property cases, the government bears the burden. In Alabama, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property, creating a strong incentive to seize.
Unfortunately, there is no way to measure the extent to which Alabama’s law enforcement agencies use civil forfeiture: Alabama law does not require law enforcement agencies to track or publicly report forfeitures or expenditures from forfeiture funds, thus providing no transparency or public accountability.
State Law Sources
Standard of proof
Reasonable satisfaction, which is akin to preponderance of the evidence. Ex parte McConathy, 911 So. 2d 677, 681, 687–88 (Ala. 2005) (overturning forfeiture on grounds that mere suspicion property was involved in a crime does not meet the “reasonable satisfaction” standard); see also Alabama Evidence § 3:29 (3d ed. 2014) (explaining that “reasonable satisfaction” is equivalent to the preponderance standard).
Innocent owner burden
The government bears the burden of proof when an owner claims an interest in real property (for example, a home). An owner bears the burden in all other cases. Ala. Code § 20-2-93(h).
Alabama ranks 31st for federal forfeiture, with over $75 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.
Federal Equitable Sharing
Alabama law enforcement’s use of the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program ranks 31st in the nation. State and local agencies received more than $75 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the DOJ between 2000 and 2013, averaging about $5.4 million each calendar year. Most of the assets seized—79 percent—were seized through joint task forces and investigations with the federal government. Just 21 percent of assets seized and 23 percent of proceeds received resulted from adoptions, the procedure curbed by former Attorney General Holder. In fiscal years 2000 to 2013, Alabama agencies also obtained $5.6 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department.
A seizure on I-10 in Alabama illustrates how equitable sharing gives local and federal officials a financial stake in forfeiture. A Mobile County sheriff’s deputy stopped Georgia resident Ming Tong Liu for speeding and found more than $75,000 in cash—money Liu planned to use to buy a restaurant in Louisiana. The officer did not buy Liu’s story, seized the cash and called in U.S. Customs and Border Protection to share the money. Finally, after 10 months—and after Liu hired an attorney—customs officials agreed to return his money, but by then he had lost out on the restaurant deal.