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Alabama receives failing grade on forfeiture transparency

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Property forfeiture accountability and transparency laws in Alabama are in bad shape, according to a new report from the Institute for Justice.

Forfeiture is the legal process by which law enforcement agencies often seize property across the country from people who are suspected of involvement with crime or other illegal activities. In many cases, the people who have their property seized may not necessarily be charged with a crime at the time, and often suspects who are later cleared have a hard time getting their property back once it has been seized.

Alabama was given a failing grade along with 18 other states and the District of Columbia by the Institute for Justice because of its lack of transparency laws in relation to property forfeiture.

When property is seized by police or other law enforcement in Alabama, there are no legal requirements for tracking the seized property nor any for accounting for how revenue from forfeited property was spent by the government.

“Alabama’s failure to account for spending from forfeiture funds is particularly troubling,” said Jennifer McDonald, a research analyst and co-author of the report.

The State also has no centralized body to oversee forfeiture nor does it produce any statewide reports with data on property forfeiture.

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“With forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep some or all of the proceeds from the property they take,” McDonald said. “This enables them to generate and spend funds outside the normal appropriations process, which undermines the legislature’s power of the purse. At a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend forfeiture funds.”

The Institute for Justice recommended Alabama require agencies track the property they seize, monitor the spending and subject those reports to routine audit and compile regular reports on forfeiture activity. But they say improved transparency is only the first step.

“By itself, improved transparency cannot fix the fundamental problems with civil forfeiture — namely, the property rights abuses it permits and the temptation it creates to police for profit,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at IJ and a director of their nationwide initiative to end forfeiture abuse. “Transparency is no substitute for comprehensive forfeiture reform, but it is still vitally important for bringing forfeiture activity and spending into the light of day.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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