Report calls Arizona civil forfeiture laws ‘among the worst in the country’

Hank Stephenson//November 12, 2015

Report calls Arizona civil forfeiture laws ‘among the worst in the country’

Hank Stephenson//November 12, 2015

IJ civil forfeiture map-620

The amount of money and property that Arizona law enforcement agencies have seized from suspected criminals under the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws has skyrocketed in the last decade, making Arizona one of most active states for seizures in the nation.

The haul for police and law enforcement agencies across Arizona quadrupled from 2002 to 2012, when seizures peaked at $43 million, according to an analysis of state records released on Nov. 10 by the Institute for Justice, a national advocacy group leading a politically diverse coalition calling for reform of state and federal civil forfeiture laws.

The Institute for Justice report called Arizona’s laws “among the worst in the country.”

The group rated all 50 states and Washington, D.C., on the financial incentives for law enforcement, the standard of proof required to seize property and whether the burden of proof falls on defendants or the government.

The Grand Canyon State scored a D-. Only Massachusetts and North Dakota scored worse.

The state, however, did earn kudos from the organization for putting data about civil asset forfeiture online.

Critics of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws say abuse, overuse and a lack of oversight have subverted the laws’ intended purpose: to undercut organized crime bosses by allowing prosecutors to use civil courts to seize the personal assets used to run the illegal businesses.

They argue the laws often amount to nothing more than state-sanctioned theft from citizens who usually have not been charged with a crime, let alone convicted, and that the laws create a “policing for profit” scheme that weakens private property rights and undermines the legal system by turning the concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head.

For law enforcement agencies around the state, the increased seizures have meant a windfall of additional funding to pay for salaries, equipment and community programs. Jimm Mann, executive director of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said the laws ensure that criminal enterprises cannot keep the illegal fruits of their labor, and help law enforcement agencies cover the costs of investigation into and prosecution of criminal enterprises.

“Any time criminals are paying for their own prosecution, that’s a good thing,” he said.

In the “policing for profit” report, the Institute for Justice examined civil forfeiture records in the 26 states where the data was available. It found that Arizona ranked second only to Texas in the amount of money brought in by the seizures in 2012, the latest year that nationwide data was available.

IJ civil forfeiture tableUnder Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement seized $412 million worth of cash and property between 2000 and 2015. The state brought in an additional $93 million during that period from joint seizures with federal agencies.

The laws allow police and sheriffs offices to keep any money, cars, homes or other property seized as part of an investigation into certain types of crimes. And in order to seize and keep the property, police and prosecutors in Arizona need only show a “preponderance of the evidence” that it was likely used in crime – even if the property does not belong to the person suspected of committing the crime. No criminal convictions, or even charges, are necessary to seize property.

The report shows that the explosive growth of civil asset forfeiture in Arizona is mirrored at the federal level. Between 2004 and 2014, the total annual forfeiture deposits to the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury increased more than five-fold and now total more than $5 billion annually.

Stories of abuse in the system combined with the rapid increase in use of civil forfeiture laws, has Republican Rep. Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff eyeing a reform of the state civil forfeiture laws for next year.

Thorpe said he is planning to introduce legislation in January that would require a criminal conviction for seizures, though he knows police organizations and prosecutors will fight him tooth-and-nail over the bill.

The report notes that reform legislation in states around the country usually faces “fierce opposition” from law enforcement, “especially in the face of efforts to stem the flow of forfeiture money into agency coffers.”

But that hasn’t stopped some states from reforming their civil forfeiture laws in recent years, including Arizona’s neighbor to the east, New Mexico, which earned an A- rating from the Institute for Justice’s report after lawmakers there made significant changes to their state’s civil forfeiture laws this year.

Thorpe said he plans to model his legislation after the New Mexico bill that effectively abolished civil forfeitures in the state.

Under New Mexico’s old laws, the state scored a D- when the Institute for Justice did their first state-by-state ranking in 2010.

New Mexico now requires a criminal conviction with proof beyond a reasonable doubt for all forfeitures; after securing a conviction, the government must prove in the same criminal proceeding that seized property is connected to the crime by “clear and convincing evidence.”

The new law also eliminated law enforcement’s financial incentive to pursue forfeitures, according to the report.

Before the reform, New Mexico police agencies were allowed to keep 100 percent of forfeiture monies, just like in Arizona. But the new law requires all forfeiture monies be deposited in the state’s general fund.

“New Mexico’s reforms set a clear example for other states to follow in protecting people from unjust forfeitures,” the report states.