An attorney challenging state forfeiture laws and how they’re applied by Pinal County claims she is being threatened with legal sanctions if he does not drop his case.
In pleadings filed in federal court here, Emma Andersson of the American Civil Liberties Union said a lawyer hired by the county sent her a letter claiming that the lawsuit was “politically motivated.” The case claims that County Attorney Lando Voyles and Sheriff Paul Babeu are violating the rights of Rhonda Cox whose truck was seized by the county after her son used it, without her knowledge, to steal something.
But the letter from Jim Jellison, the private attorney, was more than just verbiage. Jellison wrote that he will ask the judge hearing the case to punish Andersson and co-counsel Jean-Jacques Cabou with financial penalties if they do not voluntarily dismiss their lawsuit.
Andersson, in a formal response filed with the court, said that’s not going to happen.
“Having once succeeded in bullying Rhonda out of court and preventing her from righting the wrongs done to her (the defendants) are at it again,” she wrote in pleadings to U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa.
Andersson said Jellison, in his letter to her, claims the lawsuit was filed because she, Cabou and their law firms are “politically motivated to pursue a baseless lawsuit for the purposes of harassing or creating unnecessary costs” for the defendants.
“That threat won’t work,” Andersson wrote. “Rhonda will not be bullied out of court again.”
And she said the claims of the county officials that there is no basis for the lawsuit are “meritless.” So Andersson renewed her bid to have Humetewa consider not just the actions taken by county officials but her contention that the laws authorizing the seizure of items in this way are unconstitutional.
A spokeswoman for Voyles said his office would not comment on the claims by his lawyer that the lawsuit against him and the other county officials is political.
At the heart of the legal battle are state laws designed to deprive criminals of the assets they used to break the law. It permits the seizure of cash, vehicles and other property with a simple filing, one that the owners can challenge.
But Cabou said that first requires paying a $304 filing fee just to get into court, a fee that may be worth more than the property. And that presumes the owner does not hire an attorney.
More to the point, there is no requirement for police and prosecutors to gain a criminal conviction of the defendant — or even charge the person at all.
Cabou said there’s a lot at stake beyond the immediate claim that Cox’s rights were violated by the process.
He said the Attorney General’s Office at last count had more than $31 million. A pooled account for county attorneys, he said, had $43.2 million, with local agencies holding $9.5 million, all funds controlled by police and prosecutors.
That, he said, provides them with “a perverse, unfair, unconstitutional incentive to seize and forfeit as much money and property as possible as a means to ensure a slush fund available to them with little or no oversight.” Cabou and Andersson want Humetewa to block prosecutors and police from using the law against anyone else in the future.
The Attorney General’s Office has asked the case be dismissed, saying Cox has no legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Arizona law.
Jellison said Cox had her opportunity for her day in court. He said she eventually paid the fee but never pursued her claim.
And Voyles defended the ability to seize property involved in a crime without first having to get some sort of conviction, calling the laws “an important and necessary tool in preventing and deterring crime.”