Blogger Comments: How can law enforcement seize assets with no intention of returning those assets back to the rightful owner? Even though you have not been charged with a crime or convicted of a crime your property can be seized, trust me I know? For those of you in Morgan County who are curious enough to want to know how much property has been seized in Morgan County, I recommend that you visit abamalegal.com.
Civil asset forfeiture harms innocent Alabamians like me
By Guest Voices on February 18, 2018 at 7:00 AM, updated February 18, 2018 at 7:02 AM
By Jamey Vibbert
Most people learn about civil asset forfeiture in law school, if they learn about it at all. I learned about it when law enforcement tried to take about $25,000 of my money. The lesson cost me my business, my savings, and my reputation. I am still working to rebuild.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process that allows the government to assume ownership of people's property if they believe it's connected to criminal activity.
Originally intended as a way to take the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins who were beyond the reach of the law, it has been transformed into an unaccounted-for revenue stream for law enforcement, who use it to take money, vehicles, and even homes from ordinary people without ever convicting, or even charging them with any crimes.
This year, Alabama legislators have legislation in front of them that would end this abusive program.
This sensible legislation, which protects property rights while maintaining a robust mechanism for depriving criminals of ill-gotten gains, should be a no-brainer for anyone who respects the constitution and the right of private citizens to keep their earnings.
Instead, it has been met with full-throated opposition by leadership in Alabama's law enforcement community, who in a recent op-ed claimed the current system is only used against people who have committed crimes.
I know from personal experience just how false that is. And my story is just the tip of the iceberg.
I own a car dealership in Dothan, Alabama. I am also the past president of the Dothan/Houston County Rotary Club and former member of the board of directors and three-time "Ambassador of the Year" for the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.
In 2015, in a transaction no different from hundreds of others over my years selling cars, I sold two vehicles to a young man. Later, I learned he was an alleged drug dealer.
When law enforcement found it would cost them almost as much as the cars were worth to try and have the young man forfeit them, they set their sights on me.
After a two-month investigation during which I was led to believe I was going to be a helpful witness in a case against a drug dealer, they seized about $25,000 from one of my business accounts.
They claimed this money was my take from somehow helping this drug dealer - a man who, like most of my customers, was a total stranger to me before I sold him some cars - launder his money. A few days after they seized the money, they arrested me.
A judge found me innocent in early 2016. At the trial, he said explicitly that he didn't think forfeiture laws should extend to people who, like me, unknowingly conduct business with someone who committed a crime. I was sure I'd get my money back right away - but I didn't.
Even though a judge agreed that I had done nothing wrong, the district attorney still tried to use the civil forfeiture process, which has a much lower standard of proof than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases, to keep my money.
I had to hire my own attorney and, eight months after I was found innocent, I finally got my money back. Even then, the DA threatened to tie it up by in an appeal. By the time it was over, I had lost my dealership, my life savings, and my reputation as an honest businessman.
It has taken everything I have to rebuild, and I'm still not back to where I was.
In a recent-op-ed, the presidents of the Alabama District Attorneys' Association and Alabama Sheriffs' Association wrote that "[l]aw enforcement uses civil asset forfeiture only to go after criminals."
My case is proof that this is false, and I'm not an outlier. According to a recent study by Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center, about a quarter of all civil forfeiture cases filed in 2015 were not linked to any criminal charges. The state won 84 percent of those cases, raking in more than $670,000 from people who were never even charged with a crime.
The law enforcement leaders also claimed in their op-ed that ending civil asset forfeiture would result in less policing, asking, "What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don't receive proceeds to cover their costs?"
Aside from the fact that they got the law wrong (the proposed legislation would allow law enforcement to keep proceeds from most criminally forfeited property), this claim raises serious questions about how these law enforcement leaders understand their roles in society.
As taxpayers, we employ them to protect and serve us, not to make policing decisions based on where they can make money. I have always been a supporter of law enforcement, and I believe they should get the funds they need to do their work. But they shouldn't be allowed to take those funds from innocent Alabamians, which is what the current law allows. That's just wrong.
There is nothing anti-law enforcement about opposing unfair laws. In living memory, Alabama has repeatedly revisited laws that were popular at the time they were made, but in practice turned out to be unjust and ill-advised. We have done the right thing and changed those laws. And now it's time to change this one.