Why Did Arizona Democrats Kill a Bill Protecting Citizens From Police Overreach?
An Arizona bill requiring police and prosecutors to get a criminal conviction before they could attempt to force defendants to forfeit their assets died Thursday at the hands of a bloc of mostly Democratic lawmakers.
Civil asset forfeiture is a mechanism that lets law enforcement seize and keep the assets of people believed to have committed crimes. Many states do not require defendants to actually be convicted—or sometimes even charged—with a crime before police take their property. People are thus put in the position of having to prove their innocence in order to get the money back, subverting due process. Meanwhile, police agencies keep the money they seize and sell the other property they take, thus filling in gaps in their budgets.
This leads inevitably to corruption, as cops look for a pretext to stop people, search them or their vehicles, and—if they find large sums of cash or other valuable property—claim it simply must be proceeds from drug trafficking and try to keep it for themselves. This process was sold to the public as a way to fight drug cartels and other criminal kingpins, but in reality most forfeitures are for relatively small amounts taken from underprivileged people who lack the resources to fight back.
Some states have started reforming these laws to require stronger evidentiary thresholds before police could force forfeitures. And some states have changed the rules to demand a criminal conviction before police try to take somebody’s property.
That was what S.B. 1556 in Arizona attempted to accomplish. The state had already reformed its civil asset forfeiture laws back in 2017, requiring a tougher evidence threshold and also keeping cops from bypassing state restrictions on forfeitures by partnering up with the Justice Department. S.B. 1556, sponsored by state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth (R–Gilbert), would tighten the rules further: It flat out requires a criminal conviction before police and prosecutors can attempt a forfeiture, with some exceptions if a defendant dies, flees the state, or abandon the property. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in March.
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