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Wed, Oct. 16

Column: Going to be harder for police to take your stuff

Arizona lawmakers just made it harder for law enforcement to take your stuff. 

That’s the effect of a new law signed by Gov. Doug Ducey. It reforms our state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which enable law enforcement agencies to seize cash, property, and vehicles from citizens without charging them or convicting them of a crime. Though further reforms are needed, we applaud this move to reform one of the most blatant violations of civil liberties in existence today.

Nationwide, civil asset forfeiture disproportionately impacts Latinos, and other minorities. It’s difficult to know the full scope of this impact in Arizona because law enforcement has fought to avoid oversight and did not keep or publish detailed data on the victims of asset forfeiture.

But studies in other states bear out who the victims are. In Oklahoma for example, Latinos make up only 10 percent of the state’s population, yet accounted for nearly a third of all property forfeiture cases of at least $5,000 from 2010-2015. And in Florida, one in four Hispanics say that either they or someone they know has had property seized by police without being charged with a crime.

It’s no surprise then that, nationwide, a majority of Latino voters—and all voters, for that matter—oppose asset forfeiture.

What we do know in Arizona is that before the recent reforms, Arizona’s forfeiture laws were a recipe for abuse and corruption. The Institute for Justice gave the Grand Canyon State an F for failing to track important details about seized property, including where and when it was seized, its value, and the alleged crime. In addition, the state had “zero insight into the financial integrity of forfeiture accounts.”  

Making matters worse, the Institute for Justice reports law enforcement had “a considerable incentive to seize property” because they could keep 100 percent of funds raised through forfeiture. Between 2000 to 2014, Arizona law enforcement collected $412 million in forfeiture, a large portion of which was spent on salaries, benefits, and overtime.

Recent high profile cases underscore the need for reform. The FBI is currently investigating former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and County Attorney Lando Voyles’s use of forfeiture funds. While in Pima County, a top official pled guilty to misusing funds obtained through forfeiture. 

The new law—which was passed with nearly unanimous, bipartisan support—curbs abuse by imposing strict reporting requirements so Arizona voters know what is being seized, why police seized it, and how the proceeds are spent. The bill also closes a loophole through which police could skirt local restrictions by cooperating with federal agencies.

Opponents of these reforms, who wish to continue seizing property without the burden of proving it was involved in a crime, claim the oversight will “cause logistical issues for county boards of supervisors and county attorneys.” That claim doesn’t hold water. After all, trial by jury presents a major “logistical issue” for the state. The government’s convenience just does not outweigh the rights of individuals—the Constitution is clear on that point.

Indeed, on a fundamental level, Arizona’s asset forfeiture laws still come up short because any seizure of private property without charges or convictions is a violation of individual rights. There’s more work to be done on this issue but, thanks to the new law’s oversight requirements, property rights advocates will have valuable ammunition the next time asset forfeiture comes up in the legislature.

Arizonans should applaud Gov. Ducey and lawmakers for taking this important step and demand continued reforms. No one in Arizona should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Fernando Gonzales is the Arizona field director for the LIBRE Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit grassroots organization that advances the principles and values of economic freedom to empower the U.S. Hispanic community.

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