News & Politics

Alabama Law Enforcement Wants to Profit From People Who Aren't Convicted of Crimes

An Alabama sheriff and prosecutor defended the disturbing practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Photo Credit: Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals

If there's any field where the profit motive should play as little a role as possible, it's police work. Police officers wield an enormous amount of power, and when they are incentivized to carry out their work more aggressively and extensively, abuses are bound to occur.

But preserving monetary incentives in policing is exactly what Sheriff of Coffee County Dave Sutton and Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh argue for in a recent op-ed on AL.com, in which they defend the disturbing practice of civil asset forfeiture.

This practice allows cops to seize money and other valuables from people they believe to be criminals. But many of the individuals who have their money or possessions seized have not been convicted of a crime. The Alabama legislature is considering amending the law so that civil asset forfeiture can only be used against those who have been convicted of a crime, a move Sutton and McVeigh oppose.

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They also oppose putting any funds received through the practice into the state's general accounts. Instead, they think the funds should go back to the law enforcement agencies that seized them in the first place.

"[S]ending the proceeds of forfeiture to the state's General Fund would result in fewer busts of drug and stolen property rings," they write. "What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don't receive proceeds to cover their costs?" 

Police, being public servants who take an oath of integrity, should have plenty of incentive to enforce the law fairly and evenly. 

In 2015, about 25 percent of cases of civil asset forfeiture never resulted in charges being filed against the supposed criminals, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 40 percent of the cases were marijuana-related.

But civil asset forfeiture is big money for Alabama. The state made more than $2 million from the practice, the center found. No wonder law enforcement wants to keep civil asset forfeiture around. 

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Cody Fenwick is a reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter @codytfenwick.