Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws are safe from any legislative changes this year.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said a strike-all bill to form a study group on asset forfeiture is likely doomed in the Senate, but the push to look at reforms is not.
“One way or another this is going to get studied,” Allen said April 7.
The proposed study committee wasn’t the only bill this session pertaining to civil asset forfeiture.
A House bill that would have made several changes to the laws, including more transparency on how police and prosecutors spend money they seize from criminal proceeds, never got a hearing.
Allen said study committees are tough to pass in the Senate because they require a lot of work to put together. But she said there are other ways to study an issue such as working groups or task forces, which don’t require legislation to be passed.
Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws are patterned after the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is designed to strike at the finances of criminal syndicates. The laws allow police and prosecutors to seize property of people accused of certain crimes and use the proceeds to benefit their departments.
Police agencies often use the seized funds to buy equipment for law enforcement purposes. But critics of the laws say police often abuse them and use the money as slush funds to dole out for political purposes and to develop goodwill and enhance public images.
With the Legislature closed as an avenue of change for now, a diverse collection of public interest groups and lawyers are also looking to the courts.
Jared Blanchard, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for libertarian causes in the courtroom and Legislature, suggested police agencies might be in danger of violating the state Constitution’s ban on government gift-giving to private interests.
The Goldwater Institute recently took aim at the Pinal County Attorney’s Office and Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, asking for a wide array of records detailing the spending of seized funds.
“We asked for those records because we’re concerned this money may not be used pursuant to the constitution, namely the gift clause, which says anytime public money goes out the door there has to be strings attached to it to make sure the public is getting equal value for that money going out,” Blanchard said.
Goldwater is also particularly interested in a promotional flier sent by the sheriff’s office, which touts Sheriff Paul Babeu’s record on immigration, one of his talking points in his campaign for Congress, and contains a photo of him with former presidential candidate Ben Carson.
“We’re concerned because the sheriff’s newsletter looks very much like a campaign flier and we think that the very least the public should know how that money was spent and what decisions were made that led up to that flier, to see how the sheriff thinks it’s serving the public interest rather than personal political interests of himself,” Blanchard said.
He said a lawsuit is certainly an option if Goldwater finds there was a violation of the Constitution.
“We of course like to use that as a last resort,” Blanchard said.
Jean-Jacques Cabou, an attorney representing a San Tan Valley woman who is suing Pinal County, said he thinks any legislative change is going to be difficult because of the adamant opposition of police and prosecutors.
Cabou’s client, Rhonda Cox, asserts her rights were violated when Pinal County sheriff’s deputies seized her truck and the Pinal County Attorney’s Office sold it based on the activities of her son.
Cabou said he expects lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to push for changes to the laws, but public interest and advocacy groups are also going to continue to push for change through the courts.
“I don’t think those options are mutually exclusive,” Cabou said. “We’re going to keep trying by any means available to us.”
Prosecutors showed up at a Senate Education hearing March 21 to oppose the study committee bill, HB2093, which made Allen suspicious.
“I am really surprised at how strong the opposition is to just studying something and to look at something that there are national organizations, Goldwater Institute, people coming forward saying we have a problem,” Allen said.
Kim MacEachern, a staff attorney with the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council, said the group opposed the bill because it didn’t define an objective.
“This is a large topic, there are a lot of components in it,” MacEachern said.
She said her group took issue with the proposed membership of the committee because it included no prosecutors.
She said APAAC is also conducting a review of all the state’s criminal provisions and might have recommendations on the civil asset forfeiture laws when concluded.
Kathleen Mayer, a lobbyist with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said there is no need to study the laws because they are fair, they are constitutional and they work.
“We have no reported abuses in Arizona of this process in spite of what you might read about in the press,” Mayer said.
Rebecca Baker, a lobbyist with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said the proposal was put together without any input from prosecutors.
“Those are the people who use this process, use this system and are familiar with what is actually happening in Arizona,” Baker said.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff is pushing the measure and the House bill that was dead on arrival. He said police and prosecutors didn’t want to even discuss his proposals.
“They just opposed my bill flat out,” Thorpe said.