In 1957, a classic Western film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin was released – 3:10 to Yuma. It was remade in 2007 with super star actors Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Both the 1957 and 2007 versions received critical acclaim albeit not necessarily box office glory. Essentially, the movie’s plot revolves around a drought stricken Arizona rancher willing to risk everything to provide for his family. He accepts a job ensuring a cold-blooded killer (Glen Ford/Russell Crowe) makes a train, the 3:10 to Yuma, where he’ll be jailed and tried for murder. On its face, it was a classic story of good versus evil – but not so fast. In the end the antagonists realize they aren’t really all that different. They end up saving each other and making the train as it dramatically begins to rain on the platform, ending a devastating drought.
In 2017, the Arizona legislature caught a train too, HB 2477, which significantly changed the Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) landscape within the state. Prior to HB 2477, Arizona’s CAF law required little reporting and close to zero oversight. The burden of proof was low and property owners were discouraged from even attempting to secure the return of their seized property, because of a provision allowing the government to recover attorney’s fees should they fail. With seizures often being less than $5,000.00, it was simply too risky to attempt to recover property. Attorney’s fees alone could often be four times the amount of the seizure’s value. Why risk it? So law enforcement seizures were largely unchecked.
Thankfully, there was a diverse group of HB 2477 proponents lead by Right on Crime. The proponents came from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum. They included groups like the Institute for Justice, Free Enterprise Club, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the ACLU – to name only a few. For much of the legislative session the antagonists battled, one hoping the train would never leave the station, the other creating steam with as much coal as they could shovel. Until finally, late in the session, the antagonists met in a room and realized just like the characters in the 3:10 to Yuma, they weren’t all that different. That’s how HB 2477 moved out of the station with a unanimous legislature on board.
Arizona now has a CAF law that no longer penalizes property owners who judicially contest seizure. The new policy requires law enforcement to report greater details, eliminates loopholes, and it raises the burden of proof. Overall HB 2477 provides substantially more protections for property owners while at the same time preserving law enforcement’s ability to use civil asset forfeiture as the vital tool it was originally intended to be – to catch high level drug offenders.
Arizona is fertile ground for more criminal justice reform. Right on Crime looks forward to more trains coming in 2018.
-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.
This story was originally posted on the Right on Crime website.