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Alabama advocates hope to reintroduce legislation reforming civil asset forfeiture

Gabby Dance

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Innocent until proven guilty is heralded as a rightful standard in the United States criminal justice system, but when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, the standard seemingly flips to the opposite.

Under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture policies, police are able to seize personal property from citizens without a criminal charge or conviction if they find probable cause to believe the property could be connected to a crime.

In order to regain their property, owners not convicted of crimes must go through a court process to prove the property was not connected to a crime. Even then, it may take months or years to receive their property, if they ever get it back.

Because of this, Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws have been rated among the worst in the nation by the Institute for Justice.

According to Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Carla Crowder, this practice harms low-income Alabamians who may not have the necessary funds to hire a lawyer. For these people, having money or cars taken away can be extremely detrimental.

“What we found is that a lot of people, even though their money or their property is taken, and they are not convicted of a crime, don’t have the resources to hire an attorney so they don’t go to court to challenge that forfeiture,” Crowder said. “So, they end up losing a lot of property or their money.’

The practice gained federal popularity during the so-called “War on Drugs” of the 1980s as a means to fight organized crime. However, Crowder said it has evolved to target ordinary citizens with no criminal intentions.

“You can be someone who doesn’t have a bank account, you’re driving down the road, you get pulled over in a traffic incident and the police find $1,500 in the car because you’ve just cashed a paycheck,” Crowder said. “When the officer sees the cash, he or she can take it. The police are taking small amounts of cash and property and not having to prove people were involved in a crime, much less some kind of big, criminal enterprise.”

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According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the amount of cash seized in half of Alabama’s 1,100 examined civil asset forfeiture cases was under $1,372.

Government entities in Alabama have historically not been required to report what they have taken or what they have done with the unclaimed property.

“It just should be a given that when the government takes citizen’s property, we should know what they’re doing with it,” Crowder said. “They should have to report what they take, what they keep, how they use it.”

Alabama takes step to create civil asset forfeiture database

According to Crowder, this can potentially lead to abuse by officers, who could take proceeds from federal forfeiture actions for themselves.

“This is an example where police agencies, instead of pursuing fairness and justice, are pursuing profits,” Crowder said. “That’s just now how the criminal justice system should work. The system should be designed to keep communities safer and treat people fairly, not for police officers to make a profit off of innocent citizens’ property.”

Last year, legislation calling for a criminal conviction to be required in order to seize property, protection of property owners and transparency of the process was introduced by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and state Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham.

This legislative session, advocates are planning to introduce another similar bill.

“We do expect that bill to be filed,” said SPLC staff attorney Emily Early.

The omnibus bill would essentially end the practice of civil asset forfeiture, grouping it into criminal proceedings.

“There would be a requirement of a criminal conviction for any forfeiture of property or proceeds to occur,” Early said.

Civil asset forfeiture reform has been a recent nationwide trend.

A current bill requiring a criminal conviction before the forfeiture of property has gained strong support in the South Carolina legislature, and the Arkansas state Senate recently unanimously approved a bill requiring a criminal conviction before civil asset forfeiture.

The Supreme Court also ruled in late February that people who have lost property through civil asset forfeiture can argue that the amount taken was excessive under the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which bars excessive fines.

“Alabama would not be a first to step out there and reform this practice, which we believe is a huge governmental overreach and a violation of an individual’s due process right,” Early said.

Last year’s bill gained bipartisan support but ultimately failed to pass due to law enforcement pushback.

“There was significant opposition from law enforcement, unfortunately, in the state of Alabama, particularly prosecutors such as district attorneys who are opposed to ending civil asset forfeiture and believe that civil asset forfeiture is a necessary means to fight crime,” Early said. “Our position in introducing the bill that would end civil asset forfeiture … is that it is completely possible to fight crime and to really get at the higher-level criminal perpetrators without taking away property when there is no sort of crime, charge or conviction.”

Though a potential future bill has not been brought into play yet, progress toward accountability with civil asset forfeiture has been made.

Last week, the Alabama Districts Attorneys Association, alongside Mooney, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and other public policy groups, began taking steps toward creating a reporting system to keep track of the use of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama.

The Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System will track and compile all state civil asset forfeiture cases, generate reports to lawmakers and state officials and provide information on the use of civil asset forfeitures to the public.

District attorneys across the state started collecting data related to civil asset forfeiture, including filings, pleadings and court rulings, on March 1 to submit to the database.

“This has been a work in progress since last spring, when legislation to create a data collection and reporting system for civil asset forfeiture system died when time ran out on the legislative session,” said Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the state Office of Prosecution Services. “But we continued to work with many groups – from law enforcement and state agencies to policy groups with an interest in asset forfeiture – to voluntarily put the system in place.”

Mooney hopes that this will aid lawmakers in supporting a future bill.

“I can’t overstate the importance to lawmakers of having accurate, reliable information as we look legislatively at civil asset forfeitures,” Mooney said. “This new system will help paint a clearer picture of what is actually going on in the state.”

Though the new database shows progress, the SPLC’s Shay Farley said legislative change is still necessary to ensure the government is protecting individual property and due process rights.

“Increasing government transparency is always a positive step but as they say: ‘the devil is in the details,’” Farley said. “Information about how much revenue is collected in Alabama civil asset forfeiture cases or how those funds are used by the receiving governmental entities throughout the state has always been secret, and it’s not clear this will change in this new system.”

 

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House

Alabama Legislature plans to return to work briefly March 31

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Senate is planning to get to only a few big, constitutionally mandated items before calling an end to the year’s legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but whether they’ll get those tasks accomplished remains to be seen. 

Senate leadership is advising lawmakers who fall into “at-risk” categories because of their age or pre-existing medical conditions to not attend the Senate’s meeting when it resumes.

Among the items legislators tentatively plan to tackle before gaveling the session closed sometime in the future are the passage of the Education Trust Fund budget and the General Fund budget, which is the Legislature’s only constitutionally mandated duty.

And “other bills deemed necessary.” 

The state Senate’s Plan of Action, obtained by APR Friday, states that the Senate will meet at 2 p.m. on March 31 for its 14th legislative day. 

“The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House,” the plan reads. 

The State Senate’s plan: 

“As leaders, it is imperative that we demonstrate that the business of this state carries on in an orderly and systematic fashion while adhering to the recommendations of our public health officials.

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The Alabama Senate will meet on Tuesday, March 31 at 2:00 pm at the Statehouse in the Senate Chamber as scheduled. This will be the 14th Legislative Day.

The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House.

Below is a draft agenda for Tuesday, March 31.

  • Gavel In
  • Pledge and Prayer
  • Roll Call
  • Excuse all Senators
  • Points of Personal Privilege
  • President Pro Tem Marsh
  • Majority Leader Reed
  • Minority Leader Singleton
  • Adjourn to date certain for 15th Legislative Day.

“It is highly recommended that any Senator that falls into any of the at-risk categories stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day,” the plan advises. “However, each Senator’s personal wish will be accommodated.”

Any Senator or staff member that is ill, has been ill, or has been in the same room of anyone that has had any symptom of illness in the 72 hours preceding the March 31 Legislative Day must stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day, according to the Senate’s leadership.

A disinfecting station will be provided under the canopy of the second-floor rear entrance for each senator to disinfect hands and cell phones as they enter the State House and as they leave the Statehouse.

“We must ensure that we practice all Health Department recommendations while at the Statehouse,” the plan reads.

Social distancing will be accomplished by having senators report to their offices by 1:45 p.m. They will then walk into the chamber as the roll is called and then go back to their offices.

“As much separation as possible is required therefore greetings must be verbal only from a distance of 6 feet or greater,” the plan reads.

The remainder of the session will be held possibly Tuesday, April 28 through Monday, May 18.

This timeframe includes three weeks of the session plus the last day of May 18.

A specific plan for meeting more days than normal will be developed and provided prior to the next legislative meeting date.

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House

$200,000 in campaign finance penalties deposited into State General Fund

Staff

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Act 2015-495, which went into effect beginning with the 2018 Election Cycle, allows the Secretary of State’s Office to issue penalties to Political Action Committees (PACs) and Principal Campaign Committees (PCCs) that fail to timely file campaign finance reports.

As of today, the Office of the Secretary of State has collected $202,504.20 which has been deposited into the State General Fund to benefit the people of Alabama.

Conversations with the Senate and House General Fund Chairmen are currently underway to determine the best way to allocate these resources to counties.

Anyone who receives a campaign finance penalty is able to appeal their penalty to the Alabama Ethics Commission who has the authority to overturn a penalty.

“When I campaigned for this office in 2014, I made a promise to the people of Alabama that I would work to see that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat in this state. Since then, we have worked to make the electoral process more fair and transparent through requiring the honest reporting of all PACs and PCCs,” stated Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

Anyone who suspects an individual may be in violation of the Alabama Election Fairness Project is encouraged to report suspicious activity to StopVoterFraudNow.com.

 

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Economy

Daniels: We have to get help to those who need it most

Josh Moon

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There is not enough help coming fast enough to the people struggling the most. 

That was the message from Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, who was asked on the “Alabama Politics This Week” podcast about the efforts of Alabama’s state government to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If you’ve never been poor, you don’t fully comprehend how things like this affect the poor and the unique problems the poor people face,” Daniels said. “I commend Gov. (Kay) Ivey and her staff for working to try and address this crisis the best they can, but I just think there’s a lack of understanding among all of us in some cases of how people need help.” 

To address those issues, at least in part, Daniels is writing a series of letters to different entities, including Ivey, to explain how they can best help the state’s most vulnerable. 

Daniels plans to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to order lower courts to halt foreclosure proceedings and evictions for those affected by coronavirus job losses and illnesses. He also will ask Ivey to intervene with banks on behalf of customers who are falling hopelessly behind on mortgage, car loans and other installment loans. And he will seek additional assistance from the state for borrowers with overwhelming student loan debt. 

“I want people to understand that I’m not criticizing what’s being done or trying to take control, I just hear from these folks on a daily basis and believe there are some better ways to help people,” Daniels said. “President Trump has addressed student loan debt by knocking the interest of those loans, but what does that really do for a person who just lost a job? Or someone who’s had hours and pay cut? We need to pause those payments and give people substantial forgiveness. 

“Otherwise, it’s going to be ugly.”

Democrats in the House also have been putting together potential legislation that could be passed to help the state’s poorest citizens and those who have been laid off from jobs. The specifics of those pieces of legislation weren’t available, but Daniels said they would have the same focus — providing real help for those who need it most. 

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If those bills are anything like the measures taken during the last economic downturn, you can expect a relaxing of rules on social programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment assistance programs. 

One of the first moves could be overturning a measure passed during the last legislative session that cut the number of weeks of unemployment pay in the state from 26 to 14. State Sen. Arthur Orr sponsored that legislation, and critics argued at the time that a downturn, such as the one that occurred in 2008, could suddenly leave thousands in the state without jobs and job prospects. It passed anyway.

 

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House

Alabama House cancels March 25 committee meetings due to coronavirus

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The Alabama House of Representatives announced on Monday that committee meetings scheduled for Wednesday, March 25 will be cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

The legislative day on March 26 has not technically been cancelled but the House is not expected to have a quorum for that day.

A “quorum” is the minimum number of House members that must be present at any meeting to make the proceedings of that meeting valid. If there are not enough members present, then the meeting cannot proceed and House rules state that the speaker of the House is allowed to set a new date for the meeting. 

The Legislature is currently on an annual spring break. The House and Senate are both expected to reconvene on March 31. According to the statement from the House, a joint decision will be made regarding the future legislative meeting days.

The full statement reads:

“The leadership of the Alabama House of Representatives has made several changes to the upcoming meeting calendar because of the coronavirus crisis in the state.

House committees that were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 have been cancelled.

The House is scheduled to meet on Thursday, March 26, 2020 at 9:30 a.m. but no quorum is expected that day.

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Under House Rule 5(b), if there’s no quorum to conduct business during a state of emergency declared by the governor, the speaker of the House is allowed to set the date and time of the next meeting day. 

Both the House and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 and at that time a joint decision will be made as to future legislative meeting days.”

 

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