The morning of June 29, 2010, began much like any other day for Frank Ranelli, the owner of FAR Computers in Ensley, Alabama. Ranelli, who had owned his computer repair business just outside of Birmingham for more than two decades, was doing some paperwork in his windowless office when he heard loud banging on the front door. Within a matter of moments Ranelli was placed under arrest and all of the computer equipment in his store, much of which belonged to customers, had been confiscated by Alabama police never to be returned. Per AL.com:
Within moments, a Homewood police sergeant had declared a room full of customers' computers, merchandise and other items "stolen goods," Ranelli recalled. He ordered his officers to "arrest them all," according to Ranelli, who was cuffed and taken to the Homewood jail along with two of his shop employees.
The police proceeded to confiscate more than 130 computers - most of which were customers' units waiting to be repaired, though some were for sale - as well as the company's business servers and workstations and even receipts and checkbooks.
"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.
Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge levied against Renelli of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after he demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally. That said, despite no official charges and no jury trial, Ranelli has been trying, to no avail, for nearly 7 years now to recover the items the officers took from his business.
Rick Hightower had a similar experience with Alabama police when he was a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After being arrested for "lewd behavior" at a college party in 2008, Hightower says police raided his apartment and confiscated as much as $200,000 worth of musical instruments and other property. Despite never being charged with stealing the property, Hightower says police have refused to return any of the confiscated items.
On April 13, 2008, he was arrested and initially charged with lewd behavior after police said he was caught exposing himself at Samford University in Birmingham, according to court filings. Hightower, who has a fairly extensive rap sheet, was ultimately convicted of indecent exposure and resisting arrest in connection with that incident.
Five days after his arrest, officers with the Homewood and UAB police departments raided Hightower's apartment, executing a warrant to search for files, cameras and any other evidence related to the incident at Samford.
They also decided to seize "a large amount of property believed to be stolen," including "musical instruments, electronics and other items," according to a UAB Police Department report on the search.
As such, Hightower was charged with receiving stolen property. He was never charged with stealing any of the other items that were seized from his apartment, and was not convicted of stealing the English horn, as he provided a receipt that showed that he had purchased the item from a thrift store.
And yet the Homewood Police Department - which stored and ostensibly continues to store the items seized in the raid - did not return the horn or any other items to Hightower. More than nine years later, he has yet to even lay eyes on any of the possessions that were taken from him.
Unfortunately, the raids on Ranelli's business and Hightower's apartment are not isolated incidents. They are just a couple of many similar cases that have taken place in Alabama and across the U.S. in recent years, according to Joseph Tully, a California criminal lawyer with expertise in civil asset forfeitures.
Long used in major criminal busts as a means to confiscate money and possessions obtained by illegal means, civil asset forfeiture impacts thousands of Americans each year and has become the subject of intense national and local scrutiny over the past decade.
The ability of law enforcement agencies to use such tactics to take people's assets and property almost at will "lends itself to abuse," Tully, who describes cases like Ranelli's as "theft," said.
"It's really hard to fight the system. If it was a private citizen who stole your things, you could go get your things, or in the olden days you could get your shotgun and pay the thief a visit and say, 'give me my stuff back.' But you can't do that in this case because it's the police."
In fiscal year 2016, law enforcement agencies in Alabama seized more than $2.2 million worth of "assets that represent the proceeds of, or were used to facilitate federal crimes," according to its annual report to Congress. In fiscal 2014, the total value of such assets seized by law enforcement in the state was more than $4.9 million.
That recent drop is the local manifestation of a nationwide reduction in the use of civil asset forfeiture as public awareness and outcry over its widespread use has grown in recent years, according to experts. The tactic is still regularly deployed, impacting dozens of Alabamians each year. But the tide is turning. Fourteen states, from New Mexico to Connecticut, have passed laws in recent years to stop police from seizing property absent a criminal conviction.
"The pendulum is starting to swing but I wouldn't say that it has been swinging back the other way for too long," Tully said. "State and local governments are starting to act ... Law enforcement officers are coming around a bit and there's a little bit of a curb in police doing whatever they want."
And on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo directing a deputy to establish a unit aimed at ensuring there are no abuses of a federal policy reinstated by Sessions in July to help state and local law enforcement agencies seize accused criminals' property.
Alabama's laws, however, still provide the state's citizens with few protections from the practices, earning the state a "D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws" in a November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia nonprofit advocacy law firm.
Alabama laws stack the deck against victims of asset forfeiture by establishing a "low bar to forfeit" and not requiring a conviction to do so; offering "limited protections for innocent third-party property owners"; and letting "100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement," the report stated.
The irony here, of course, is that we live in a country where the police can show up to any "Regular Joe's" apartment on any given day and legally confiscate all of his stuff but James Comey couldn't even manage to interview a material witness in the Hillary email investigation without first granting them an immunity deal. Seems fair...