PHOENIX (CN) – Arizona’s unconstitutional civil forfeiture laws provide Pinal County’s attorney and sheriff’s offices with a slush fund, encouraging them to seize as much money and property as they can, a grandmother claims in court.
Rhonda Cox, mother of four and grandmother of four, sued five state officers on Wednesday over the forfeiture of her truck, which her son was driving.
Pinal County sheriff’s officers arrested her son and seized the truck in August 2013, claiming its cover and hood had been stolen.
Pinal County is south of Phoenix.
Cox went to the scene of the arrest and asked a deputy if she could get her truck back, saying she had nothing to do with the alleged crime. The deputy responded “too bad,” she says in the complaint.
Later that day, Cox says, she was contacted by another deputy, whom she told she had nothing to do with the crime and that the truck belonged to her. The deputy told her she would not get her truck back as they were initiating forfeiture proceedings.
Cox, unable to afford a lawyer, tried to fight the forfeiture on her own, but decided against it after she was told by Pinal County Deputy Attorney Craig Cameron that she would have to pay the state’s attorney fees if she lost her claim for the truck.
“In fighting to regain her truck, even though she is an innocent owner, and even though she lacked the assistance of counsel, Rhonda was caught in a Kafkaesque predicament where, bizarrely, she bore the burden of proving that she was entitled to get the truck back,” the complaint states. “The state did not have to prove that Rhonda did anything wrong – let alone criminal – in order to keep the truck.”
She sued Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles, Sheriff Paul Babeu, Clerk of the Superior Court Amanda Stanford, Deputy Attorney Craig Cameron, and Det. Samuel Hunt, in Federal Court.
Arizona’s forfeiture laws were enacted in 1986 by a committee of prosecutors sponsored by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council, to remove the incentive of racketeering, compensate victims of racketeering, and reimburse the state for costs of prosecution. Most cases brought under the laws, however, deal with small amounts of money that indicate low-level criminal conduct, not racketeering.
A recent report compiled by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission says the Attorney General Master Account held $16.6 million from forfeitures; the Attorney General Individual Account held $15.4 million; the County Attorney Master/Pooled Account held $43.2 million; and Local Agencies held $9.5 million.
“All of this money is controlled only by people and agencies, including the law enforcement defendants, whose direct pecuniary interest in these monies is created by the forfeiture laws and results in a perverse, unfair, unconstitutional incentive to seize and forfeit as much money and property as possible as a means to ensure a slush fund available to them with little or no oversight,” the lawsuit states.
The money pays for law enforcement operations, including equipment, office supplies, furniture and toilets, and has paid for Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles’s personal home security system and donations, according to the complaint.
“Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws gave Pinal County license to steal from Rhonda Cox,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “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.”
Pinal County’s attorney and sheriff’s offices were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
Cox claims Arizona’s forfeiture laws violate the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments.
They also violate the First Amendment, by effectively taxing her for petitioning the government for redress of grievances if she fights for her seized property.
The laws at issue are codified as Arizona Revised Statutes §§ 13-4301 to 13-4315.
Cox seeks declaratory judgment that Arizona’s forfeiture laws are unconstitutional, an order enjoining their enforcement, disgorgement of the state’s profits from selling her truck, for which she paid $6,000, costs of suit and nominal damages.
She is represented by Jean-Jacques Cabou with Perkins Coie in Phoenix, and by the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, in New York City, and by the ACLU’s Phoenix office.
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