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Legislature taking up major civil asset forfeiture reforms

In the wake of a yearlong AZCIR investigation that found lax oversight of the state program that allowed Arizona law enforcement agencies to seize $200 million from people suspected of committing crimes and spend more than half of it on general operations, the Arizona Legislature is considering a measure that would fundamentally alter how police can take a private citizen’s money or property.

Most significantly, HB2477 would change the evidentiary standard that police and prosecutors must meet when seizing money or property under Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture statutes. The current standard is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that prosecutors must only prove that it is more likely than not that the property is linked to a crime, and thus can be seized.

The legislation would change that to clear and convincing evidence, meaning prosecutors would have to prove that there is a high probability that the property is tied to a criminal act.

The bill also seeks to make it easier for people to challenge seizures and recover their property. Under the current law, if a person challenges a seizure and does not establish that “his entire interest is exempt from forfeiture,” the person must then pay the state’s attorney’s fees and any costs relating to the investigation pertaining to the seized property. Arizona is the only state in the nation with such a provision.

HB2477 would also dramatically increase transparency on the civil asset forfeiture system.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to submit more detailed information each quarter to a state commission that compiles annual reports on the program.

AZCIR reported in January that the reports created by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission include only broad spending categories, and virtually no information is provided on the assets that were seized other than their total value.

HB2477 would require detailed information on both seizures and expenditures. The bill mandates that law enforcement agencies disclose what property was seized, when it was seized, the alleged criminal offense that led to the seizure and whether charges were ever filed against the property owner.

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The law allows police agencies to seize money and property, even if the owner is never charged with a crime, much less convicted.

The bill also would force law enforcement agencies to detail how seized funds are spent, including a breakdown of salaries and overtime pay for prosecutors, police officers and support staff. It would further require that any expenditure categorized as “other operating expenses” be separately itemized.

HB2477 is scheduled to be heard by the House Federalism, Property Rights and Public Policy Committee on Feb. 14, and by the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Feb. 15.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.

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Emily L. Mahoney/AZCIR

A Navajo County Sheriff reserve deputy fills out paperwork after pulling over a car and searching it for drugs on Nov. 22, 2016, in Holbrook, Arizona. Navajo County uses forfeiture money to partially fund the salaries of its drug task force.