Arizona’s attorney general says something needs to be done about the state’s asset forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize private property without a court order.
Mark Brnovich said Tuesday on a stopover in Casa Grande that the Legislature needs to address the issue in its next session and he hopes to bring that about.
“I know it is an effective tool for law enforcement. However, the potential for abuse or misuse is there,” he said in an interview.
In July the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Pinal County that ultimately asks a federal judge to void state law that allows such seizures, calling them a violation of constitutional rights of due process, illegal seizure and a burden on First Amendment rights.
At the heart of the case are the state’s Civil Assets Forfeiture Laws. These are Arizona’s version of RICO statutes — Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations laws — designed to allow prosecutors to deprive criminals of the assets used in breaking the law.
Without addressing the Pinal County situation, Brnovich said the problem is the laws that allow for the seizures don’t involve enough accountability. He said 90 percent of the time they are used correctly, but the other 10 percent can be a problem. He said he would like to gather all the stakeholders — law enforcement, civil libertarians and activists — together to gain input on what sort of corrective measures can be taken.
Brnovich also plans to share his own perspective.
“I have a few ideas,” he said.
Brnovich said the Attorney General’s Office doesn’t have the authority to oversee how the forfeiture laws are being implemented, unless there is some sort of illegal activity. He said he has some lawmakers in mind, whom he wouldn’t identify, who may introduce legislation on the matter.
The ACLU suit cites the case of San Tan Valley resident Rhonda Cox, who claims her rights were violated when the Pinal County Attorney’s Office took her truck and sold it. Her son Chris had been arrested in 2013 after deputies determined that a cover on the back of her pickup truck, which he was driving, had been stolen. Based on that, deputies seized the truck.
Her attorneys claim Cox herself was unaware of the stolen item and therefore, under the terms of the law, entitled to have it returned.
The ACLU says that the process has become so profitable for police and prosecutors that it provides them with “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 claims that funds from the seizures have been used by County Attorney Lando Voyles to pay for a home security system and have gone to office staff and retirement contributions for employees. ACLU attorneys also say Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu funnels money into a foundation “which buys things for him and his department.’’
County records obtained through a public records request list a combined total of $652,677 that was transferred out of three RICO funds — from the Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Pinal County Narcotics Task Force — and into a foundation controlled by the Sheriff’s Office from a period of July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015.
The foundation’s most recent IRS tax filing, from 2013, shows expenses totaling $303,753 for line items such as $41,268 for advertising and promotion; $45,958 for shirts, uniforms and badges; $45,581 for employee/volunteer appreciation; $38,504 for travel and meal costs; $33,152 for employee relief; and a catch-all “all other expenses” of $91,906. Office costs, insurance, accounting and conference fees are also included.
In the program description for the quarterly filing with the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office notes: “All of these organizations offer activities and information to help keep kids away from drugs and gangs, as well as promote crime prevention activities as a whole to Pinal County communities.”
In recent weeks the Sheriff’s Office has publicized financial contributions derived from “seized criminal money” to various Pinal County organizations, including $3,000 to the Apache Junction High School band and $5,000 to the Combs Football Booster Club.
Voyles and Babeu have declined to discuss the specifics of the ACLU lawsuit but have defended the asset seizure process as a way for criminal funds to go back to the community.
Capitol News Service contributed background to this story.