A lawsuit that was the catalyst for changes to Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture law has been settled.
Plaintiff’s attorney Jean-Jacques Cabou said the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and the Pinal County Attorney’s Office compensated his client, Queen Creek resident Rhonda Cox, for her truck, which the two agencies seized in 2013 after arresting her son for a crime he committed while using it.
Cox alleged the seizure violated her constitutional rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa dismissed the case April 27 after parties filed a notice that they had reached a settlement.
Cabou said Cox’s lawsuit prompted “key, long-overdue reforms to Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws.”
Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB 2477 into law in April 2017, making it more difficult for state prosecutors and police to seize property. The new law put in place a more rigorous standard of proof required before property may be seized, and eliminated the possibility that a property owner who fights forfeiture and loses in court could have to pay the government’s legal fees. The legal fees coupled with the owner’s own legal costs would often amount to more than the property was worth.
Under the new “clear and convincing evidence” standard, prosecutors have to prove to a judge that property they want to seize is connected to criminal activity, a far cry from the “preponderance of evidence” standard under which Cox’s truck was seized.
The former standard required only that it was more likely than not that the property was linked to a crime. And there was no requirement that someone be convicted or even charged with a crime before having their property seized.
Now, if someone does believe property was seized without cause, the property owner can challenge the seizure without potentially being left on the hook for their own legal fees if they win. Rather the state may cover the costs of fighting the seizure, and triple the costs in cases where the state is found to have acted with negligence or intended harm.
Cox’s case began when her son borrowed her truck and replaced the hood and bed cover with stolen parts. Cox was unaware of that until deputies arrested her son and refused to return her property in 2013.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which filed suit on Cox’s behalf in July 2015, contended she had a right to have her truck returned because she was not herself involved in any crime.
Cox began the process of seeking the truck’s return herself but she ultimately gave up when a deputy county attorney told her she would be liable for the county attorney’s fees and investigation costs, which exceeded the truck’s value of about $6,000.
The case began under the administration of former Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles, who lost his reelection bid to Kent Volkmer in 2016. Former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu was also originally a defendant in the case but was replaced by the current sheriff, Mark Lamb, after Babeu chose to run – unsuccessfully – for Congress instead of seeking reelection.
Critics of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture often pointed to Pinal County while still under Babeu and Voyles’ watch to buttress their arguments against the practice.
The push for greater scrutiny managed to bring together unlikely allies, like the ACLU and the Goldwater Institute, while law enforcement officials fought the changes that ultimately became law.