Federal Drug Charge

Civil Asset Forfeiture in Alabama: Blurred Lines

Officer Jimmy Bailey accompanied by Officer Carlos Watson entered the residence of Mr. William Anderson with a search warrant and seized in total, $15,140 found in Mr. Anderson’s boot wrapped in a plastic grocery bag and a digital scale on Feb 27th 2013. The two Mobile City officers arrested and charged Mr. Anderson with distribution of a controlled substance based on an investigation carried out by the two officers.

According to Officer Bailey, William Anderson testified that the money seized was from pushers who sold marijuana for him. In addition to that, $10,000 of the seized money was to be used to purchase additional marijuana to sell.

However, in a testimony during trial, William Anderson said he did not remember the conversation concerning the $15,140, with Officer Bailey. Although Bailey said that he had recorded the conversation with Mr. Anderson, there was no record of it admitted into evidence as it had not been submitted to the Defense counsel, Mr. Chase Dearman of the Dearman Law Firm.

Although the State of Alabama vs. William Anderson did go to trial, this isn’t always the case in a state touted as having the worst laws in the United Stated when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. It was also aptly named Policing for profit. Under the civil forfeiture practice, officers could seize a residents’ private property and in most cases, not charge or convict the property owners with any crime. Owners can and usually do permanently lose their property without being guilty of any crime.

Under civil forfeiture, it is not the owners that are guilty; it is the property that is guilty until the owner can prove that it is not. The basis of it is simple while at the same time being mind boggling. If an officer of the law has preponderance of the evidence that suggests your property was used or will be used in a crime, the officer may confiscate it. To that end, the State of Alabama vs. William Anderson case is unique as it lists the owner as the defendant when really, civil forfeiture cases list the seized asset as the defendant as in $3,011 in United States currency vs. the State.

This brings to the fore, not only the credibility of such a law but why it is so common place. By law, officers are not required to be accountable for how much they seize. In Alabama, law enforcement can keep 100% of all seized assets and that creates an enormous incentive for even more aggressive seizures based on more flimsy reasons. In Williams’ case, no drugs were actually found at his residence. Given this kind of incentive and the level of unaccountability, the laws that govern civil asset forfeiture might remain a grey area. In 8 years, from 2000 to 2008, the state of Alabama received more than $40 million in unaccounted equitable sharing proceeds, with figures fluctuating. Federal forfeiture law doesn’t make it any better with equitable sharing. Under the arrangement, state officials can hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds — even when state law bans or limits the profit incentive. In the same 2000-2008 period, equitable sharing payments have doubled to $400 million. Seized assets can be sold off by law enforcement agencies, and with the figures not showing up on any audit reports, the proceeds from seizures are used to fund purchases that are in no way related to law enforcement, as in the case of a Texas police station that used monies from seizures to buy margarita machines.

While the initial precedent for the set up of civil asset forfeiture was to cripple large scale criminal entities by diversion of resources in the war on drugs, law enforcement agencies have flipped the law on its head, making it a cash cow that most residents would rather not follow up on as lawyer fees for the procedures for the legal regaining of the seized property is too costly, most times exceeding the value of property. For residents like Williams Anderson the cards have been stacked too high against them.

However, there is hope. In William Anderson vs. State of Alabama, the defense challenges the authority of Officer Bailey and Officer Watson to conduct a search and seizure operation, as Officer Bailey had not been deputized by the sheriff, which would give him authority to conduct the search citing United States vs. Martin, 600. F.2d 1175 (5th Cir 1979) “a search pursuant to an Alabama warrant executed by a municipal officer in cooperation with county sheriff’s deputies was valid even if the deputies were present merely to legitimate the search” In this case, the warrant was not issued by a district court judge, not a municipal judge, and it was directed to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.

It is also interesting to note, that Officer Bailey, during trial did admit that the residence of Mr. Anderson did not exist within his Mobile city limits jurisdiction.

The appeal judge, Judge Thomas brought to the light the illegality of the practice during the appeal hearing when he said, “…Officer Bailey’s reliance on what appears to be an illegal practice of the Mobile City Police Department is not reasonable in light of the statutory directive of section 15-5-7 that a search warrant be executed by the officer to whom it is directed or at his or her direction and in his or her presence.”

He continues, reversing the judgment of the trial court and remanded the cause to the Mobile Circuit Court for entry of a judgment that conformed to that opinion, adding that since the currency seized at Mr. Anderson’s residence was illegally obtained, the currency could not form the basis of a forfeiture action.

With Alabama among some of the states with the worst civil forfeiture track record, a number of reforms have been suggested by the Institute of Justice.

  • Law enforcement should be required to convict people before taking their property
  • Forfeiture revenue must be placed in a neutral fund, therefore police and prosecutors are not paid on commission.
  • Assets that have been seized should be accounted for.
  • Equitable sharing be abolished.
  • Providence of a lawyer to owners challenging asset forfeiture.
  • Placing the burden of proof on the government to prove the owner is involved in or aware of criminal activity.

References

ALABAMA COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS – William Anderson v. State of Alabama Appeal from Mobile Circuit Court (CV-13-900819) – http://www.dearmanlawfirm.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/court-appeals-anderson.pdf

Asset Forfeiture Abuse – https://www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police-practices/asset-forfeiture-abuse

Brendan Kirby(June 2015) When cops seize money or property in Alabama, it’s owner’s burden to prove he’s innocent – http://www.al.com/news/mobile/index.ssf/2015/06/when_cops_seize_money_or_prope.html

John Kramer (March 2010) Alabama Earns “D” In “Policing for Profit” Report – http://ij.org/press-release/alabama-earns-acanadacana-in-acanapolicing-for-profitacana-report/

Chase Dearman of the Dearman Law Firm is a Mobile, Alabama criminal defense attorney handling state and federal criminal cases in Mobile County, Baldwin County, and South Alabama. He has successfully defended countless clients in trials and appeals on all manner of criminal charges.

CONTACT CHASE DEARMAN AT THE DEARMAN LAW FIRM
(251) 445-6997