Friday, February 2, 2018

Civil asset forfeiture — guilty until proven innocent

  Jamey Vibbert had owned his car dealership in Dothan, Alabama, for over a decade when authorities seized $25,000 from one of his bank accounts.

  One of Vibbert’s customers had allegedly used illegal drug profits to buy two cars from him. A prosecutor later told the local newspaper that Vibbert, by extension, had committed something “kind of akin to money laundering because you know you’re taking dirty money.”

  Vibbert said he knew no such thing, but authorities indicted him on title fraud and seized the money he received for the vehicles. When he went to trial, a judge was quick to find Vibbert innocent of any wrongdoing. But his troubles were far from over: Prosecutors wouldn’t return his money.

  That’s because they had seized it through civil asset forfeiture, a process that lets law enforcement take and keep property even if its owner — such as Vibbert — wasn’t convicted of a crime.

  Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice released a joint report called Forfeiting Your Rights, which examines 1,100 cases of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama in 2015. Its findings paint a disturbing picture:

    A legal process once intended to strip illicit profits from drug kingpins has since evolved into a revenue-generating scheme for law enforcement, one that is now being widely used against people accused of low-level crimes, particularly marijuana offenses, or no crime at all.

  In Alabama, as in other states around the country, civil asset forfeiture has been used to take cars, real estate, guns, TVs — even power tools. And though a court decides whether the agencies can keep the property, the property owner must prove the property is “innocent” of the alleged crime, turning the concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head. Vibbert, for example, had to hire a lawyer to get his money back.

  There is widespread agreement across the ideological spectrum that civil asset forfeiture laws violate the most fundamental tenets of due process in our democracy. And in Alabama, two state lawmakers filed legislation last week that offers reform.

  Both are encouraging signs. As this report makes clear, civil asset forfeiture places its heaviest burden on the economically vulnerable. It encourages policing for profit. It erodes trust in law enforcement. In other words, it is unfair, undemocratic and un-American.

  It is time to end this abusive practice.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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