Their lawsuit claims the state's civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to rake in cash by seizing and selling innocent civilians' property.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona filed a suit in US District Court on Wednesday arguing that the state's civil asset forfeiture laws—which, when abused, allow law enforcement agencies to fill their coffers by seizing and selling the property of innocents—violate the constitutional rights of citizens.
As it stands, police in Arizona can confiscate anything from cars to cash to real estate if they suspect the property was in some way linked to a crime. They can then either keep or sell what they've picked up—even if it belonged to someone who hasn't done anything illegal. In Pinal County, Arizona, the sheriff and county attorney have put money collected from this type of seizure to a few different uses: salaries, overtime pay, retirement funds, and more—even upkeep of the county attorney's home security system, according to the ACLU.
Since the money from shit cops confiscate and sell can be used to pay them, the ACLU argues, police departments have a twisted incentive to pursue civil forfeitures as opposed to cracking down on other crimes. The lawsuit cites a 2014 report by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission that found the state and county attorney's offices and Arizona law enforcement agencies had almost $85 million in their bank accounts derived solely from forfeitures.
Although people who feel like their stuff shouldn't have been taken can fight the fuzz in court, it typically costs more money to legally regain what they've lost than their property was worth in the first place.
Take Rhonda Cox's case, for example, which Arizona's ACLU is using to try to overhaul the state's forfeiture laws. In August 2013, Cox's son borrowed her car, a truck she had bought a few months back for $6,000. The cops wound up arresting the kid for allegedly stealing a car hood and installing it on his mom's truck. When Cox showed up to the scene, she told the deputy the truck was her own and asked when she'd get it back. According to the ACLU's complaint, the deputy "curtly told Rhonda that she would never be getting the truck back"—and when she told him she had nothing to do with the alleged crime, "he simply said, 'Too bad.'"
Cox couldn't afford a lawyer, and spent months trying to get her truck back in court on her own. But she threw in the towel after the County Attorney's office told her that if she fought her case and lost, she'd be forced to pay the State's attorney's fees and the cost of the investigation—which could amount to a hell of a lot more money than her truck was worth. The vehicle was eventually sold by the county.
"On top of authorizing the seizure of her truck even though she did nothing wrong, the forfeiture laws then punish Rhonda for standing up for herself and her property in court," the ACLU wrote in the complaint, later adding, "The forfeiture laws have created a system in which few people like Rhonda can afford to take the risk of defending their property. And Defendants have profited, and continue to profit, wildly through this system."