ACRE Expert Discusses Recent Changes to Civil Asset Forfeiture

By Caleb Taylor

What changes to civil asset forfeiture in Arkansas were made during the recent legislative session?

ACRE Research and Program Assistant Zach Burt analyzed “The Arkansas Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2021,” also known as Act 1023 in “Need better law” in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on June 5th.

Burt defines civil asset forfeiture as “a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement and prosecutors to confiscate property used to commit a crime. Most often, seized property is cash, vehicles, and firearms, though sometimes it can be land or houses.”

Burt writes:

Sponsored by Senator Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, the act attempts to change how spouses, parents and other innocent owners try to get back property that police seized from another person suspected of criminal activities. 

However, the act will do little to reform the process of civil forfeiture in the state because it fails to address the core problem: Arkansas law enforcement is focused on seizing property with low-dollar values, very different from the mythology of cartel members hauling hundreds of thousands of dollars across Interstate 40.”

Burt contrasts Act 1023 with Senate Bill 197, also by Clark, which failed to garner enough support to become law. Senate Bill 197 “would have offered new and necessary protections for Arkansans.”

Burt writes:

SB197 would have made civil asset forfeiture a criminal process rather than a civil one. This means cases would have to be dealt with in criminal courts, where citizens are guaranteed the right to an attorney. In civil courts, Arkansans do not have this right, and must pay for legal representation out of their own pockets.

According to research done by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, the average legal costs for contesting seizures nationally amount to $3,000. No rational person would pay that much to get back property worth only $1,300, the median currency amount forfeited by law enforcement agencies across the country. However, such high legal costs relative to the low-dollar value of property seized is the norm in Arkansas.”

For more on this topic, ACRE Director and UCA Professor of Economics Dr. David Mitchell recently explained how often and how much property was taken through civil asset forfeiture since 2010 at a state Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on December 18, 2020 at the State Capitol.

A copy of the data and graphs he used in his presentation to committee members can be viewed here. You can watch the meeting here (Mitchell’s presentation begins at 1:42:27 p.m.).

For more on this topic, check out Burt’s “Need more reform” published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on March 22.