June 12, 2020
by Victor Riches
In our country’s current hyper-politicized climate, few issues unite and galvanize Americans. However, in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, nearly everyone agrees that reforms must be implemented to reel in the powers of law enforcement and ensure all Americans are treated fairly. This is particularly important to minority communities, who feel their voices are too often ignored by those in power.
They’re right to feel that way. We saw this firsthand in Arizona just last month when lawmakers at the State Capitol killed a key police reform measure. The legislation, SB 1556, would have restrained the unconscionable power of law enforcement to police for profit. Under Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, police and other law enforcement entities have the authority to seize private property from citizens—their cars, their cash, their homes—without the property owner ever being convicted of a crime.
To make matters worse, even if a person is found innocent, they still rarely ever recover their property. Not only does this practice violate the very principles of due process, it also—as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has pointed out—disproportionately impacts minority communities. That these statutes still exist at all in Arizona is shameful.
A relic of the 1970s, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, as it was unartfully named, was designed to give law enforcement additional tools to target organized crime. The primary purpose of this was to go after the Mafia and other similarly massive criminal enterprises. It started off as a federal measure, with most states (including Arizona in 1977) quickly following suit.
What began as a well-intentioned measure to battle large crime families has devolved into a cash cow for law enforcement entities looking to supplement their budgets, usually at the expense of low-income individuals—and it almost never has anything to do with organized crime. In fact, roughly 60% of cash forfeitures are for less than $1,000, and the majority of those happened without a criminal conviction. Particularly concerning is the fact that the cost of the court cases alone often exceeds the value of the property being seized, creating a huge disincentive for citizens to challenge such takings.
Since property is taken through a civil procedure instead of a criminal case, the burden is much simpler for the government to meet in order to relieve citizens of their property. Coupled with the fact that in most forfeiture cases the property owner is unable to afford an attorney, the inevitable result is a system rife with abuse, which is precisely what is happening in Arizona.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. SB 1556 would have addressed this injustice by requiring that a person be convicted of a crime before the government is allowed to seize their property. This legislation had broad-based, bipartisan support from groups as diverse as the ACLU and Americans for Tax Reform. The Arizona Senate passed the bill unanimously, with both Republicans and Democrats wholeheartedly supporting it. Unfortunately, that’s where the consensus ended.
In the State House, every Democrat inexplicably voted against the bill. A handful of Republicans opposed it as well, led by opposition from the state’s Attorney General, who has been using civil asset forfeiture as a way of funding his office. These efforts ended the only chance at criminal justice reform at the Capitol during the regular session.
In acts of incredible hypocrisy, both the Attorney General and the House Democrats are now calling for police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s senseless killing. Yet when they had the opportunity to enact real changes to a broken system, the legislators put petty politics ahead of their constituents, and the Attorney General put his office’s bottom line ahead of the sincere concerns of Arizonans.
Fortunately, all is not lost. The Legislature will likely return for a special session later this month to address the need for criminal justice reform. If they’re serious about helping minority communities, reforming the state’s broken civil asset forfeiture laws would go a long way to bridging the gap between people of color and law enforcement. After all, Arizona’s leaders have a responsibility to our state to ensure all Arizonans are treated equally when it comes to basic due process rights.
Civil asset forfeiture reforms were derailed in the state House less than a month ago. Whatever excuses proffered by the opponents of reform no longer hold up against the stark reality of today. Those who opposed SB 1556 now have the opportunity to do the right thing and correct their mistake. And there’s no question it was a mistake—we all know better now.
Victor Riches is the President and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.
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