Alabama Bans Cops From Seizing Cash Under $250, Cars Under $5,000
Under a new reform signed by Gov. Kay Ivey late last month, Alabama became the latest state to target its civil forfeiture laws, which let police and prosecutors seize and keep property without ever convicting the owner of a crime. Last year in Alabama, more than one-third of all forfeiture cases didn’t even involve an arrest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alabama law enforcement has aggressively pursued forfeiture. Over the past twoyears, Alabama agencies opened 2,158 forfeiture cases, seizing $12.74 million in cash and 477 cars. Yet owners rarely recovered what was taken from them. During that same period, law enforcement returned a mere 38 cars, along with nearly $139,000 in cash.
Winning a civil forfeiture case in Alabama is so difficult, many owners don’t even try to hire an attorney to fight back. Almost two-thirds of all cash forfeited last year was forfeited by default, i.e. when the property owner didn’t engage in forfeiture litigation in civil court.
But under the newly signed SB 210, police may no longer seize cash under $250 or cars valued at under $5,000. By preventing police from taking cash or cars into their custody, Alabama’s new seizure thresholds could prevent owners from being targeted with civil forfeiture in the first place. As a result, even at those low thresholds, SB 210 could still protect hundreds of people from the grasping hand of the state.
One recent report by Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,110 forfeiture cases in Alabama, with more half of those cases involving less than $1,400 in cash. Incredibly, that figure was even lower in neighboring states. According to a 2020 study by the Institute for Justice, the median cash forfeiture was a mere $540 in Georgia and just $675 in Tennessee.
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“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property in Alabama,” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “By setting minimum dollar thresholds for currency and vehicles, Alabama becomes one of the very few states to address the problem of thousands of low-value seizures. This is an innovative reform because it is irrational for even the most innocent property owner to pay a lawyer to litigate the return of $250 or an old car.”
Only a handful of other jurisdictions have recently set thresholds to seize or forfeit property. Since 2017, Illinois prosecutors cannot forfeit cash under $100, though for drug possession charges, that threshold jumps to $500. A 2019 law in North Dakota banned forfeiting vehicles under $2,000, unless the car “has been modified to conceal contraband or currency.” And last December, the district attorney in Contra Costa County, California issued a new $1,000 threshold to forfeit property, doubling the previous minimum.
As a groundbreaking policy, impact data from seizure thresholds are rather scarce, but a 2016 reform enacted in Florida can shed light. Under that law, agencies must pay a $1,000 filing fee after seizing property and post a $1,500 bond, with the latter payable to owners who win their property back. That effectively set a $2,500 threshold to forfeit property, which in turn deterred agencies from petty-ante seizures. Since that reform was enacted, half of all cash forfeitures in Florida have been under $4,500—the state with by far the highest median value for confiscating currency.
As originally introduced, SB 210 would have abolished civil forfeiture entirely in Alabama, à la Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina. But after extensive negotiations with law enforcement groups, the bill was watered down considerably to earn their support. Though a far cry from ending civil forfeiture, the final version of SB 210 still contains key protections.
In addition to setting minimum seizure values, SB 210 gives people not suspected of a crime, such as a spouse, parent or creditor, their day in court immediately after seizure. The new law also requires prosecutors to bear the burden of proof when trying to forfeit property. Previously, anyone who had their cash, vehicle, or any other valuable property that wasn’t real estate seized was effectively guilty until proven innocent. Only 14 other states, plus the District of Columbia, abide by the presumption of innocence for civil forfeiture.
With SB 210, the Yellowhammer State also became the fifth state to outlaw roadside waivers, which enable officers to coerce drivers into waiving away their rights to their property (often cash), without any safeguard for due process. Alabama now joins Arizona, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming in banning this abusive practice.
“This important legislation allows our law enforcement to continue to deter criminal activity and confiscate property obtained through illegal actions, while at the same time ensuring that the due process and rights of the property owner in question are protected,” bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr said in a statement. With SB 210, “we can give Alabamians the assurance that their right to due process is protected.”