Asset Forfeiture

California Asset Forfeiture Reform Heading to Approval

Police will have to get convictions in many cases before taking people's stuff.

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Forfeiture
Photographerlondon / Dreamstime.com

The same California Assembly that killed off an attempt to reform the state's laws last year to make it harder for police and prosecutors to take people's assets and property reversed itself on Monday and voted in favor of change.

SB443, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell, died in the Assembly last year after police and prosecutor groups declared their opposition. The bill would have required police and prosecutors to get convictions before crimes before they could attempt to use the asset forfeiture process to keep citizens' cash and property. The existing civil asset forfeiture process allows police to seize and keep property on mere suspicion of criminal activity, forcing citizens into a complicated and expensive civil process to try to get their property back, even if they are never charged with a crime.

After the bill failed, Mitchell and supporters vowed to keep fighting. This summer they worked out a compromise that managed to get most police and prosecutors to drop opposition to reform. In its current format, SB443 will now require a conviction before police can seize money totaling less than $40,000. For money greater than that amount, police and prosecutors will still have access to the civil forfeiture process, meaning that the owners of the money will not necessarily have to be convicted in order for the state to try to take it.

That may sound like a big exception at first, but keep in mind—despite the claim by law enforcement that asset forfeiture helps grab the money from major drug dealers—the average asset seizure is worth far less than $40,000 in California. A recent report put together by the Drug Policy Alliance calculated the average forfeiture in 2013 to be worth around $5,100.

So while it's true that people above the $40,000 threshold don't have the full due process protections under the law that they should have, these reforms are really significant in terms of cutting off the most egregious forms of abuse that target poorer citizens who don't have the resources to fight back. SB443 also makes sure that local law enforcement agencies follow these same rules when participating with joint investigations with the feds. One of the consistent problems with reforming asset forfeiture laws is that the Department of Justice's equitable sharing program allows local police to bypass the state's rules by partnering with the federal government, which has laxer requirements, not as much protection for people who get swept up in it, and allows police to keep more of the money than they seize. SB443 has been written in such a way to keep it from happening.

Yesterday, the bill passed the Assembly 66-8, a significant difference from last year's 24-41 vote. The bill has to go back to the Senate for another vote due to the compromise changes. It originally passed the Senate easily last year. Then it will head to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

If nothing else, this whole ordeal demonstrates exactly how powerful police and prosecutor lobbies are even in states that claim a reputation for progressive and humane politics.