Alabama Police Use Asset Forfeiture to Ruin an Innocent Small Business Owner


A news report from Alabama offers two textbook cases of how sweeping powers of civil asset forfeiture allow police to seize people’s property with near impunity.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can take property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Law enforcement and prosecutors say the practice is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting ill-gotten gains. But in state after state, horror stories have emerged of regular people having their possessions expropriated and their lives turned upside down.

In the Alabama case, around 20 heavily armed officers raided Frank Ranelli’s computer repair shop in Ensley in 2010, on a tip that Ranelli was selling stolen goods. Police seized roughly 130 computers from the shop, most of them belonging to customers.

The Alabama news outlet Al.com reports what happened next:

Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally.

Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.

“Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years, and I show up at work that morning—I was in here doing my books from the day before—and the police just f***ed my life,” he said.

Ranelli has been fighting ever since to get his property back. But at least he got to keep his house. The same story documents the case of Cherie Marceaux, whose boyfriend was arrested in 2005 for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. A subsequent search of their house turned up more pot. Marceaux pled guilty to possession and received probation, but police weren’t done with her:

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