State lawmakers left little doubt about their support for revising civil forfeiture laws.
House Bill 2810 is now on Gov. Ducey’s desk after overwhelming support from both chambers. Representatives voted to approve the initiative 57-2, with our own Reps. Nutt and Griffin in the majority. Senators followed suit, voting 29-1 to adopt the bill, with only Glendale Sen. Paul Boyer voting against.
The Governor received the bill on Thursday and has five days (May 6) to sign the legislation into law, veto it, or pass the measure by not signing it. Considering the prodigious bipartisan backing by the Legislature, we would think Ducey would put his signature on the bill.
Local law enforcement do not favor the changes.
Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws, when enforced properly, are aimed at organized crime. They were originally drafted with the intent of pinching the resources of criminal organizations that use the profits of their illegal activities to afford both their own legal defense and to continue financing their criminal operations.
Unfortunately, these laws were not always properly enforced. Several years ago revenue generated from property confiscated by authorities found its way into campaign funds for an elected law enforcement official in Arizona. Other horror stories have related innocent people losing property or cash after being arrested, but not formally charged or convicted, with a crime.
Most recently, Jerry Johnson, a 45-year-old small-business owner who had flown from Charlotte, North Carolina, to purchase a truck for his shipping company, said a Phoenix police officer threatened to arrest him after arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport if he didn’t sign a waiver form forfeiting the $39,500 in cash he had brought with him to purchase a truck at an auction. Johnson is still fighting to get his money back in the Arizona Court of Appeals.
On the surface, civil forfeiture laws appear to provide police with an incentive to seize property. Authorities can seize assets from those they suspect of committing a crime without having to prove one occurred. Critics argue the laws motivate law enforcement to grab as much money and property as they can because they get to keep whatever is forfeited, thus giving them a profit incentive.
The new law would require the government to return the property to its owner within 10 business days unless it met certain conditions, such as the property was being held as evidence or was illegal for the owner to possess. It also would prohibit law enforcement from coercing people into signing waiver forms — documents that, when signed by the owner, indicate the property in question isn’t theirs — and threatening to lock them up if they refused.
We hope the consequence of this law, if it is signed by the governor, does not jeopardize the effectiveness of law enforcement efforts combating organized crime. One of the best ways for police and sheriff’s deputies to take down those profiting from human smuggling and narcotics trafficking is to take away the resources used to support their criminal enterprise.
When not abused, existing civil forfeiture laws have been an important tool for law enforcement in dismantling organized crime.