Asset Forfeiture

A Welcome Victory in the Fight Against Asset Forfeiture

The California Assembly approves one of the most significant civil libertarian reforms of the legislative session.

|

The California Assembly on Monday approved one of the most significant civil-liberties reforms of the legislative session. Remarkably, the bill—to put limits on the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture by police agencies—had no major opposition after legislators and law-enforcement groups pieced together a compromise that seems to genuinely satisfy both sides. It passed by a 67-7 vote.

Asset forfeiture is the practice by which police agencies grab the assets—cash, cars, boats, homes—of suspected criminals. Designed originally to fight drug kingpins, asset forfeiture has morphed into a means by which agencies bolster their budgets. The overwhelming percentage of forfeiture cases involve people who have not been convicted or even accused of a crime.

In one legal case, an agency took away a person's car because it was used in the commission of a crime, even though the owner wasn't involved in the crime.

Senate Bill 443 by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, was designed to stop the types of abuses mentioned above, without hindering the ability of police agencies to grab the illicit proceeds of drug dealers. It mainly requires police to gain a conviction before taking a person's property. The bill was moving ahead with strong bipartisan support last year, but then law-enforcement lobbyists derailed it the week before a final Assembly vote. They argued primarily that the reforms would cost their agencies a significant amount of money that's used for crime fighting and that passage of the reform would stifle their ability to target drug kingpins.

Mitchell revived the bill this year and recently hammered out a compromise. The California Police Chiefs Association and other law-enforcement groups dropped their opposition. In a statement, the chiefs' association lauded "a compromise that enhances safeguards on Californians' rights, while ensuring law enforcement has the tools necessary to combat the gangs and drug traffickers damaging our communities." Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of California seemed equally pleased with the compromise.

California actually imposes some of the toughest restrictions on asset forfeiture in the nation. Among other restrictions, the law requires a conviction, for instance, for forfeiture when the value of the property is under $25,000. But problems remain because state and local agencies circumvent the state's law by partnering with federal agencies under a program known as "equitable sharing." The partnership lets them operate under looser federal standards—and then the locals split the forfeiture proceeds with the federal agencies.

The bill—in its original and amended form—limits the ability of California agencies to do an end run around state law. "The bill would prohibit state or local law enforcement agencies from transferring seized property to a federal agency seeking adoption by the federal agency of the seized property," according to SB443's official summary. "The bill would further prohibit state or local agencies from receiving an equitable share from a federal agency of specified seized property if a conviction for the underlying offenses is not obtained … ." The local and state agencies could still participate in joint projects with the federal government and could still receive proceeds—but only if they first secured a criminal conviction in the underlying case.

Under the compromise, however, state officials would not need a conviction to seize "cash or negotiable instruments" above $40,000, whereas the original bill would have required a conviction for all cash seizures. Eighty percent of cash seizures are for less than $40,000, so the compromise protects the vast majority of people who have their cash seized. The average seizure in California is slightly above $5,000. Police agencies say the larger cash amounts usually are the result of drug deals, so the agreement makes sense to both sides. Furthermore, the bill still requires a conviction for the taking of property valued at more than $40,000, such as houses or cars.

That latter point is significant. In one highly publicized case in Anaheim, officials tried to take a commercial building valued at $1.5 million from a couple after one of its tenants was accused of selling $37 in marijuana. The authorities dropped that forfeiture case amid bad publicity, but SB443 is designed to halt those types of takings—where, say, a valuable property is seized simply because a drug crime might have been committed on the premises. The legislation also requires additional reporting from agencies that use the forfeiture process.

The goal is to stop what critics refer to as "policing for profit." A study from the Drug Policy Alliance reported that some cities "were found to be prioritizing asset forfeiture over general public safety concerns, like response times and sufficient patrol officers." The report referred to "multiple instances of cash grabs by law enforcement being incentivized over deterring drug sales, wherein police wait until a drug sale concludes and then seize the cash proceeds of the sale rather than the drugs, as drugs must be destroyed and are of no monetary value to law enforcement."

As Reason's Scott Shackford pointed out, "As California cities dealt with drops in revenue during the recession over the past decade … participation in the federal program skyrocketed." But reformers say law enforcement priorities should be shaped by public-safety concerns rather than monetary goals.

Presumably, the final deal will still let agencies grab the dollars of real drug kingpins, while leaving the rest of our property alone—or at least requiring that residents are convicted of wrongdoing before losing it. Both sides believe the right balance has been struck. We'll see if that's enough to move the bill through the rest of the legislative process and secure the governor's signature, but this was a major victory reformers.

This article originally appeared at CalWatchDog.org.

Advertisement

NEXT: Gary Johnson Takes Miami; Pro-Cuban Trade, Anti-Venezuelan Regime Change

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Ah, yes, asset forfeiture laws are important for fighting drug kingpins. And if fighting drug kingpins were important, that could be a great argument.

    1. Good point. Still, good on California for doing what they did here which is something I rarely say.

      1. Yeah, I feel like I need a shower now.

    2. look at what drug kingpins have done to Mexico,Columbia,and other nations where they were left unchecked. Don’t be so stupid and short-sighted with your libertarianism.

      1. Yes, Amsterdam is a real hellhole to live in too.

      2. Observe that the planted sockpuppet points to government looting, which destroyed those economies, then blames the pretext invented to justify the looting in the first place: customer choice! The same thing happened when mindless altruists made beer a federal felony, and to this day shills shriek that it was pure coincidence that the crash and great depression followed, with every bank closed before FRD even took over the wreckage.

    3. Anybody can earn 450$+ daily… You can earn from 9000-14000 a month or even more if you work as a full time job…It’s easy, just follow instructions on this page, read it carefully from start to finish… It’s a flexible job but a good eaning opportunity.. go to this site home tab for more detail… http://bit.do/ctDjs

  2. April 1 is less than 8 months away – you JUST missed it!

  3. When you heard the police unions were okay with it you know something was imperfect from a libertarian standpoint, but I honestly am pleasantly surprised. Striking down the majority of seizures without a conviction is a good step.

  4. A very small step in the right direction. Until narcotics are legalized, all of them not just MJ, this will still be an issue. The government could wipe out the majority of gangs, mafia, cartel/kingpin, etc. influence through legalization thereby removing the main source of income for these organizations.

    Of course with legalization, governments at all levels would not employ as many people since there would be no use for special units dedicated to drug enforcement. Prisons would have vacancy for heinous criminals. We all know government can never regress in size or control over the masses, so I expect that this will not catch on as rapidly as the push to inject individual sexual and gender choices into protected class status.

  5. RE: A Welcome Victory in the Fight Against Asset Forfeiture
    The California Assembly approves one of the most significant civil libertarian reforms of the legislative session.

    This is a sad and terrible day indeed when the State of Kalifornia regresses to the concepts made for us by those racist, homophobic, slave-owning, misogynists Founding Fathers. The State has worked hard and long to keep the masses from suffering from the cruel realities of capitalism. Taking the property from the untermenschen only shows a benign interest in them. The little people have a tendency to accumulate too much property, and this acquisition of property must be culled if we are to be a true workers paradise. Too much property does satiate the little peoples’ appetite for more. On the contrary, it has been documented these people who buy more property only wants more. Therefore, for their own sake and safety, The State must limit property growth of the lowly plebian class by civil asset forfeiture. As we all know, the accumulation of land, vehicles, etc is rightly reserved for our ruling elitist filth who so have so kindly enslaved us all. So let us abandon all thoughts of eliminating civil asset forfeiture without due process for the sake of ourselves and our obvious betters enslaving us all.

  6. the BIG question is,why is this having to be done at the state level? Why hasn’t SCOTUS put a stop to this clear violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments? Why haven’t EVERY judge thrown the book at police agencies who do this sort of unconstitutional act? it’s their SWORN DUTY. Judges who allow this need to be removed from the bench.

    1. Cus…err…some joke about judges or something?

  7. I’m not so sure we will be applauding this law later on.

    Allowing law enforcement to seize cash above $40,000 without a conviction could end up being used to enforce the Fed’s eventual outlawing of physical cash in order to enforce negative interest rates.

    They can easily adjust the $40,000 lower to $20,000 or $10,000 legislatively. It would have been better to make the law outright ban all takings without convictions.

  8. Well duh! On the color coded mortgage default map Bernanke’s Fed drew up showing mortgage defaults ramping up in tandem with Bush Administration asset forfeiture “sharing,” California is one of the reddest states. Their total losses for that kind of looting only levelled off when the market crash made it too obvious what was again happening. (The first time was in 1932)…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.