Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice Arizona Office
Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws need to be reformed. In the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize and keep cash and property that was allegedly involved in criminal activity—without ever proving a crime was actually committed. Unlike criminal forfeiture, with civil forfeiture a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged with a crime—to permanently lose his or her cash, car, home or other property. Even property owners who are acquitted of crimes can still lose their property. As the Arizona Daily Star reported, a Picture Rocks woman was acquitted of criminal charges but was still forced to forfeit her house, where the alleged crime occurred. According to one deputy county attorney, pursuing forfeiture even when a defendant has been acquitted of criminal charges is not unusual.1
There are three primary problems with Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws that need to be addressed by the legislature.
Problem 1: Policing for Profit
The first problem is the profit incentive that Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws inject into policing and prosecutorial decisions. In Arizona, law enforcement personnel have a strong incentive to seize as much property as they can because they keep up to 90 percent of the funds raised through civil forfeitures. Allowing police and prosecutor to wield both the purse and the sword threatens the fair and impartial administration of justice, endangers private property rights, and can place police officers in unnecessary jeopardy. Forfeiture proceeds are used for a variety of expenditures, ranging from equipment to travel to salaries, benefits and overtime. Over the time period examined in this paper, law enforcement increased its forfeiture revenue almost 400 percent—from $11.8 million in 2000 to $50.1 million in 2011. These large and increasing sums give reason to worry that forfeiture has become, or is becoming, a way for law enforcement agencies to self-fund outside the normal budgetary process. This concern is magnified by the fact that the largest category of forfeiture expenditures is on personnel. Only two states— Arizona and Texas—permit forfeiture funds to be used for direct salaries.
The profit incentive also endangers law enforcement personnel…