The lawsuit involves Pinal County resident Rhonda Cox. Her truck was seized by sheriff deputies, after her 20-year-old borrowed the truck one night and replaced the hood and cover with stolen parts, according to an ACLU press release. She filed a claim to get her $6,000-truck back and lost. Per state civil forfeiture laws, she also has to pay the county's attorneys' fees and investigation costs, the ACLU says.
Cox had nothing to do with the theft, the statement says. But civil forfeiture laws don't care. If you own property that was involved in criminal activities, law enforcement will take it away and the owner has to fight to get it back.
"Arizona's civil asset forfeiture laws gave Pinal County license to steal from Rhonda Cox," says ACLU staff attorney Emma Andersson. "That would be bad enough, but those laws also made it impossible for her to have a fair shot at challenging that theft in court. The county robbed Rhonda twice: first they took her truck, then they took her day in court."
In Arizona, law enforcement tries to seize as much property as they can because they get to keep most of the "funds" raised this way. The report "Policing for Profit," says that from 2000 to 2011, civil forfeiture revenue in the state increased by nearly 400 percent—hundreds of millions in civil forfeiture revenue.
Law enforcement can use that money to pay for staff salaries, equipment, travel, witness protection programs and even drug and gang prevention classes. Some citizens pay double—part tax dollars, part civil forfeiture.
The government doesn't have to prove that you are guilty, either. Rather, it is the owner of the property who has to prove his or her innocence, as well as the "innocence" of the property seized. Also, because it's civil and not criminal, you're not entitled to any free legal help. You have to pay for your own attorney, which is one of the reasons these actions sometimes go unnoticed. Cox had to drop out, because she had to pay for both her attorney fees, as well as the legal expenses from the county.
(I wrote about a civil forfeiture case in Tucson back in April. Legal Theft I and Legal Theft II.)
The ACLU is also working to reform civil forfeiture laws in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and several other states. Ultimately, they hope to change these rules at a federal level.
The law firm Perkins Coie is also involved in the Arizona lawsuit.
I don't think anyone has explained civil forfeiture better than John Oliver, so here it is: