In 2008, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms received bad publicity after it handed out to employees pocketknives engraved with "ATF" spelled out: Always Think Forfeiture. The agency was, in essence, caught encouraging its employees to seize as much property as possible under controversial civil asset-forfeiture programs.
ATF stopped giving out the pocketknives, but federal, state and local agencies have come to depend increasingly on seized assets to bolster their budgets. Many new "toys" departments buy — fancy new vehicles, military style equipment, weaponry and gadgets — are funded this way.
The issue has been in the news again recently after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was paring back a federal civil-forfeiture program, although some observers complain news reports made the reform sound more far-reaching than it really is.
If someone is convicted of, say, running a murder-for-hire operation, it's not unreasonable for government to grab the killer's car, cash and tools of the trade. But police routinely take property from people who have never been convicted of or charged with any crime — and agencies have a financial incentive to use minor allegations of law-breaking to grab massive amounts of loot.
Last year, I reported on Tony and Morgan Jalali, an Anaheim couple who own a $1.5-million office building. They rented space to a medical-marijuana clinic they believed to be operating within state law. But the city accused the dispensary of illegal activity after an undercover officer purchased $37 in marijuana. It then tried to take the couple's building because of that tiny transaction by a tenant.
The case is United States of America vs. Real Property Located at 2601 W. Ball Road. The name is revealing for two reasons. First, the government is not taking the property's owner to court, but is suing the actual property. Officials need only show the property was used in the commission of a crime, not prove wrongdoing by its owners.
Second, the plaintiff is the U.S. government, not the city. California's asset-forfeiture laws require governments to show a "clear and convincing" link between the property and a crime, which is a stricter standard than federal law. So locals routinely do an end-run around state law by partnering with federal agencies.
Holder's administrative reform puts the kibosh on a process whereby local cops grab an asset and then ask the feds to "adopt" it. Then federal law applies — and the feds and locals split up the booty. But the reform is almost meaningless. Local police can still take the assets if they work together with federal law enforcement agencies before the property is taken.
The case against the Jalalis was eventually dropped, but such outrages will continue given the profit motive for government. San Diego area police and prosecutors received $30 million in a seven-year period from asset forfeiture, according to Inewsource.org. Sheriff Bill Gore told the publication the Holder decision will have "minimal impact" because most seizures come as part of local-federal task forces.
"The system of civil-asset forfeiture benefits an overreaching government bent not on protecting American civil liberties, but their own financial interests," said Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant at the Redondo Beach Police Department, and spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which lobbies for drug-law reform. She said police agencies have worried about what the Holder reform will mean for their budgets, which shows the degree to which this program is driven by money.
"The whole asset-forfeiture program is a direct affront on the Fifth Amendment that gave Americans the right to be secure in their property," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Ca.), in an interview Wednesday. It reminds him of the scene from "Alice and Wonderland" where the queen declares, "Sentence first, verdict afterwards."
McClintock and other members of Congress from the left and right are sponsoring a bill to toughen up standards of proof and require that seized assets go to the U.S. treasury rather than department budgets among other limits. More reform is needed at the state level, too.
But the last time a bill was introduced in Sacramento, police lobbyists crushed it. Until laws change, maybe someone can give police officials pocketknives with this inscription: Always Think Fairness.