Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Signs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill
Arizona just substantially reformed its civil asset forfeiture laws. In many states, government agencies need to prove merely by a preponderance of evidence to obtain a judgment of forfeiture over an individual’s property. As a result, civil asset forfeiture permits a government agency to seize and obtain ownership of an individual’s property even though that individual may never be convicted or even charged with a crime. However, on April 12, Governor Doug Ducey signed HB 2477, which will reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture process while simultaneously providing greater protections to individual liberty.
Civil asset forfeiture is a major tool that law enforcement agencies use to combat criminal enterprises. However, there have been well-documented abuses where government agencies have sought to seize the property of innocent individuals. HB 2477 will help prevent some abuses by these agencies in the future. For example, the law closes a forfeiture loophole in federal law, as it prevents a state government agency from transferring or referring seized property to a federal agency, unless the property is valued at over $75,000. At times, state agencies transfer forfeiture litigation to federal court. This is often done if federal agencies participate in joint operations with state agencies and a judgment of forfeiture of property seized as a result of the joint operations would be easier to obtain under federal law. Once the judgment of forfeiture is obtained, the federal agency sends a percentage of the amount of the property back to the participating state agency. This process is commonly referred to as equitable sharing. By making it more difficult to participate in equitable sharing and requiring the forfeiture litigation to be conducted in a state court, government agencies will have a tougher time obtaining judgments of forfeiture over property.
HB 2477, which the Arizona Senate passed unanimously and received only one “no” vote in the House, raises the burden the government must meet that the property was tied to criminal activity from a preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence. This heightened legal standard will make it more difficult for government agencies to seize and obtain a judgment of forfeiture over an individual’s property.
Additionally, HB 2477 provides greater transparency regarding the state’s civil asset forfeiture process. For example, the law’s new requirements include obliging agencies to report and ultimately make public the value, type and date of a property seizure, if any criminal charges were filed, and the final disposition of the seized property. Such openness and transparency is absolutely essential to ensuring that abuses of the civil asset forfeiture process are significantly diminished and that improvements can be made when necessary.
Arizona has taken significant steps in making sure that citizens’ private property rights are not infringed upon. The improved reporting requirements closely mirror many of the provisions of the ALEC model Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act. In addition, those provisions addressing equitable sharing and raising the burden of proof for the government to obtain a judgment of forfeiture are embodied in the ALEC model Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act. Though HB 2477 does not abolish civil asset forfeiture, it is nevertheless a remarkable step forward in protecting individual property rights.