Last week the Arizona House of Representatives took an important step toward protecting the due process rights of all Arizonans. Regardless of political affiliation, most agree that Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws are in need of greater oversight and accountability. These laws, which were initially passed to crack down on drug cartels and dealers, are now broadly used against everyday citizens. In fact, under Arizona’s current statutes an individual’s property can be legally taken without that individual ever being charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.
For most people, a cumbersome and costly legal process inhibits their ability to ever get their property back. To make matters worse, those with the means to successfully challenge a seizure are still not entitled to recoup legal expenses even when the agency was proven to be at fault.
Fortunately, an important reform measure has unanimously passed the Arizona House of Representatives.
HB2477 would make the following changes to current law:
- Raises the burden of proof required of law enforcement in a forfeiture proceeding from a “preponderance of the evidence” (a mere 50.1%) to “clear and convincing,” the second highest standard of proof in the law;
- Makes claimants eligible to recover attorney fees. Currently claimants not only can’t recover legal fees but must pay the government’s attorney fees;
- Creates third party accountability for the expenditure of forfeiture dollars;
- Requires substantial reporting to make the type, value, and nature of forfeitures transparent to the public and policy makers – including when forfeitures don’t result in a criminal conviction;
- Prohibits law enforcement from circumventing state law protections by turning over forfeiture cases under a certain dollar value to the federal government.
Thanks to the leadership of Representative Eddie Farnsworth and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, Arizona is on the path to make important reforms to civil asset forfeiture laws and curb future abuses.