PHOENIX (CN) – Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation Wednesday to limit the ability of police and prosecutors to seize property involved in criminal cases.
House Bill 2477 restricts police and prosecutors from abusing the civil forfeiture process by requiring them to show "clear and convincing evidence" that certain property was linked to a crime before the seizure or forfeiture of any assets. Under current law, prosecutors are only required to show a "preponderance" of the evidence.
The move drew bipartisan support from nearly all members of the Legislature, with only one vote lodged against the measure.
“Reforms have been needed in this area for some time,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “As public servants, we are entrusted with not only protecting public safety, but also the rights guaranteed to every citizen of this great state and nation. Today’s important legislation strikes an appropriate balance between enabling law enforcement to do their jobs while upholding civil liberties."
The legislation comes just months after reports that the FBI seized items from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office as part of a possible probe into whether former Sheriff Paul Babeu and former Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles misused money from an anti-racketeering fund they controlled.
The law also awards attorney fees to any claimant who challenges the seizure in court and wins.
"If the court finds that reasonable cause did not exist for the seizure for forfeiture or the filing of the notion of pending forfeiture, complaint, information or indictment and that the seizing agency or attorney for the state intended to cause injury or was grossly negligent, the court shall award the claimant treble costs or damages," the law states.
Under current law, the claimant is responsible for their own legal fees.
Will Gaona, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, called the law a "significant victory."
“This bill ensures that Arizonans will know more about what property police and prosecutors are seizing, and how forfeiture funds are spent," Gaona said. "It also protects the due process rights of Arizonans by raising the burden of proof in forfeiture cases and making critical changes regarding attorney fees that will help ensure Arizonans have access to counsel and courts in forfeiture proceedings."
County prosecutors urged Ducey to veto the measure, but he ultimately found the legislation prevents fraud and misuse by law enforcement.
"This bill will allow law enforcement to take appropriate action against drug cartels and other criminal enterprises, while ensuring citizens do not have their property seized without proper due process," Ducey said.
The law comes as good news to the majority of Arizonans. A poll conducted in March by Public Opinion Strategies found 73 percent of voters in the state support civil forfeiture reform.
According to the Institute for Justice, Arizona is the 20th state to implement reform. The legal nonprofit sued this past October on behalf of an elderly couple who say their car was unconstitutionally seized in Navajo County under the state's current forfeiture law.
The new legislation takes effect later this year.
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