Civil Asset Forfeiture

California May Finally See Reforms to Police Seizure Rules

Compromise will require convictions before taking citizens' stuff below a value threshold.


Credit: Photographerlondon |

Reason has been reporting for years efforts in states across the country to try to rein in police and prosecutor abuse of civil asset forfeiture—the ability for authorities to take property and cash of people suspected of criminal behavior, often without ever having to charge, let alone convict them.

California has been a challenge. Not only do state regulations allow law enforcement agencies to seize and keep money and property without actually convicting people; in addition, restrictions the state has put on police (like restricting how much they can keep for themselves) can be bypassed by participating in the federal asset forfeiture program. As California cities dealt with drops in revenue during the recession over the past decade, that's exactly what governments did—participation in the federal program skyrocketed.

Last legislative year, Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell led an effort to reform California's laws to require convictions in order for law enforcement agencies to keep what they seized. Her bill, SB443 passed easily in the Senate, but then law enforcement groups mobilized and killed it in the state Assembly.

The bill is back this session and a newly announced compromise has law enforcement officials finally dropping their objections. It appears to be a pretty good compromise when you look at the worst of the law enforcement abuses. Police say they use civil asset forfeiture to target big drug dealers, but the reality is that many asset forfeitures are for smaller amounts in the thousands, often from poor people who cannot afford the costs to fight back. This compromise will require that police will have to get convictions for underlying crimes and prove that the property was connected to crime—but only for total assets that are valued at less than $40,000.

For assets over $40,000 the looser evidentiary standard of "clear and convincing evidence" applies and criminal conviction will not be required. This still seems clear a violation of the property rights and due process of people who pass the threshold, but it is nevertheless still an improvement on what currently exists.

As for the ability for law enforcement agencies to bypass the state and go to the feds, the same rules apply. In order to seize property under $40,000, even when participating in a joint investigation with a federal agency, an underlying criminal conviction will be required. It does not forbid law enforcement agencies from participating in joint operations with federal law enforcement or even using the federal "equitable sharing" asset forfeiture program; it requires that there be an underlying conviction before they can receive payment from the federal program for property valued at less than $40,000.

The new law also requires regular reporting of disbursements of assets seized via forfeiture and requires municipalities to maintain the funds in a separate account maintained by somebody like a controller or treasurer to distribute to law enforcement agencies.

Charles Stewart, Sen. Holly Mitchell's director of communications, told Reason that the compromise puts asset forfeiture in California back in line with what people think it is supposed to be used for—going after organized crime or major criminals.

"Our focus is to protect ordinary citizens who get caught up, and there's no evidence they're involved in some sort of crime," he said.

As the Los Angeles Times notes, they're hoping to have the law up for a vote in the Assembly (where it failed last time) and then back to the Senate again, in coming days.

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  1. California has been a challenge. Not only do state regulations allow law enforcement agencies to seize and keep money and property without actually convicting people

    No they don’t. They may have some unconstitutional bullshit that a state legislator rammed through a vote… but there are no rules in California which make it legal for the government to do this.

    1. Great in theory, but in practice……those with the power make the rules mean anything they want them to mean

  2. This compromise will require that police will have to get convictions for underlying crimes and prove that the property was connected to crime?but only for total assets that are valued at less than $40,000.

    So the compromise is basically ass-backwards – the more they seize, the easier it is for them to keep it. Its easier for them to take $1mm than it is to take $1K. If we have to have a two-tier system (which we shouldn’t have, because due process), is this really the way to do it?

    And this doesn’t create any perverse incentives at all. Nosireebob, no way the cops will grab a car and maybe a jetski to get them over the $40K limit.

    I guess its progress, but if this is the best CA can do, CA should be embarrassed.

    1. Look dude, they have to par for the Fresno Flyer somehow, okay?

        1. You don’t fool me with your 11th hour corrections.

    2. Ah, but California has so MUCH to be embarassed about.

    3. I think the idea is that somebody with 40k cash can probably afford legal help better than someone with $1000, but yeah, incentives.

  3. RE: California May Finally See Reforms to Police Seizure Rules

    The People’s Republic of Kalifornia is making a serious mistake should they choose to reform police seizure rules. We all recognize our police forces face hard financial times as it is as the neanderthal and reactionary forces of reason adamantly refuses to give more money to be given to the very people who enjoy jailing and beating at every possible chance. These police forces need anything and everything they can obtain through seizure in order to sell off otherwise they will have to revert to such dastardly and frightening reforms as financial transparency and accountability. They would be forced to get their own health care plans, retirement plans, etc just like the little people. Moreover, civil asset forfeiture is fine as it is with no accountability and allowing the police forces to keep anything they confiscate before the defendant(s) go to trial. There is no need for the notorious and needless Due Process Clause if we are to be a true socialist slave state. Did Hitler have Due Process? Did Stalin have Due Process? Does Castro have Due Process? Of course not, and look what a wonderful job their governments did in keeping the peace. So, let us all rightly condemn the State of Kalifornia for even thinking of regressing to the ideals of due process and accountability.

  4. Civil forfeiture is still blatantly unconstitutional, but this is at least a stopgap measure I can live with. Setting a $40K threshold means two things: it’s worth it to fight to get the property back, and the defendant likely has some means to fight for it.

    You’re not going to see roadside robberies of $500 because some dog moves its head. Though I’d expect to a stark difference in the make/model of vehicles pulled over and subjected to a search. Coincidentally of course.

    1. You’re not going to see roadside robberies of $500 because some dog moves its head.

      Yes you will. Sure, the stuff may be taken ‘against regulations’ – but law enforcement breaking regulations *isn’t illegal*. So you *might* get the stuff back. Eventually. Probably still have to get a lawyer though. And then you’ll probably still not get it all back as – like AZ likes to do – the state will ‘negotiate’ a significant percentage to keep in return for giving back the shit they weren’t supposed to take in the first place.

      There’s no *remedy* for anyone if their shit is taken – eventually – worse that happens is it has to be given back. Best case scenario you get to keep it all. And likely no matter what you get a taste.

      Maybe, in a few years, we’ll see some senior police officials working in departments that are ‘overly zealous’ with asset forfeiture will be written a strongly worded letter recommending they follow the law on seizures.

      And nothing else will happen.

    2. You’re not going to see roadside robberies of $500 because some dog moves its head.

      If anything, it seems like the regulations allowing the government to steal your shit just meant that the theft was officially recorded.

  5. This “compromise” flips off the Constitution.

    The pigs still get to line up at the trough, but now they will contemptuously turn up their snouts at the cheap stuff and will only gobble truffles.

  6. Great, so I’m still gonna get into trouble for carrying around my giant bag of money (which features a dollar sign made of inlaid emeralds). It’s getting pretty tough to stick it to the banks these days.

  7. its not hard for a new car or truck to cost more than $40k so the legal theft by the government will continue

  8. Hudson . although Henry `s article is flabbergasting, last thursday I bought a brand new Buick after having earned $7028 recently an would you believe ten-grand this past-munth . it’s actualy the most-comfortable job I have ever had . I began this 4 months ago and practically straight away started making a nice at least $83.

  9. All seizures without convictions are wrong, period.

  10. Ella . you think Victoria `s storry is astonishing… on saturday I bought themselves a Car after bringing in $7899 this – 5 weeks past and-more than, 10-k last munth . it’s by-far the best-job I have ever had . I began this 8-months ago and almost straight away started to earn minimum $77

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