No reforms for Arizona asset forfeiture this year

Proposed reforms to Arizona’s asset forfeiture rules failed this year, despite strong support. Analysis of state data shows that forfeitures fall heaviest on people who cannot afford an attorney, most cases involves small amounts of money, and crime victims receive little compensation. Instead, civil forfeiture – more than $412 million since 2000 – funds police salaries, benefits and more. The negative incentives are clear. Furthermore, Arizona’s procedural protections for property owners are poor. In well-publicized cases, innocent property owners have dropped claims when faced with these difficulties.

In February 2020, the Arizona senate passed SB1556, which would have made real and significant improvements to the state’s forfeiture system and rules. Had they been enacted, Arizonans – especially the poor and disenfranchised – would have benefited greatly.

Most significantly, forfeiture would have been permitted only when the State has obtained a criminal conviction relating to the seized property (with minor exceptions). Standing alone, this would have been a significant improvement, as the State would have had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime had occurred. Currently, much less is required.

Also, “innocent owners,” i.e., someone other than the person convicted, would have received much stronger protections. All that an innocent owner would have been required to do is produce evidence of his or her ownership in the seized property. Then the State would have had to prove that the owner had “actual knowledge” of the crime. Also, the burden of proof would have been “clear and convincing” a stringent standard (though not as stringent as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard). This would have been a marked departure from the current law, which requires innocent owners to prove not only that they had no actual knowledge of the crime but also that they had “no reason to know.”

In addition, SB1566 would have tightened the rules for seizing property for forfeiture in the first place, including expanded warrant requirements and forbidding the seizure of cash simply due to its presence in proximity to a crime scene.

Why did SB1566 fail after passing the Arizona senate? Oddly, Arizona house Democrats uniformly opposed the bill on a variety of grounds, including an unwillingness to reduce police funding. Also, house Democrats appeared to be concerned about opposition by law enforcement agencies, and the speed with which the bill had proceeded through the legislature. Others appeared to say that civil asset forfeiture reform doesn’t count as “true” criminal justice reform. On the last point, we respectfully disagree and hope that the State legislature will take up the bill in the next session, together with a package of other needed reforms.

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Michael Harwin

About Michael Harwin

Michael’s skill and experience have been recognized repeatedly. He holds an A-V 5/5 preeminent rating by Martindale Hubbell. He has been named one of the top lawyers in Arizona by Southwest Superlawyers, and one of the best lawyers in Tucson by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine. He also has been named one of the best lawyers in the United States by BestofUS.com , and given the highest rating possible by AVVO, 10/10 Superb. Amazon Books