Lawmakers seek to curb police seizures of assets

State lawmakers are considering a proposal to rein in California law enforcement agencies' ability to keep money, cars and homes seized from suspects who have not been charged with a crime.

The measure is the latest effort to roll back anti-crime policies passed during the height of the 1980s drug wars.

Advocates of stricter confiscation rules say that the controversial federal seizure program is now being used by local agencies — which may keep most of the property they confiscate regardless of whether a suspect is convicted — to increase revenue and plug budget holes.

Steering the bill is an unlikely pair of Los Angeles lawmakers — Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, one of the Legislature's most liberal Democrats, and Assemblyman David Hadley, a Republican freshman from Manhattan Beach.

The bipartisan backing reflects the national debate in which figures from both left and right have been calling for changes in the criminal justice system.

"There's too much injustice that's been carried out under the banner of the drug war, of getting the bad guys, which we all want to do," Hadley said.

"The bottom line is we shouldn't have law enforcement being paid on commission any more than we should have IRS agents paid on commission," he added.

Police groups and prosecutors are against the measure, which sailed through the state Senate last month and is expected to face its first test Tuesday in the more moderate Assembly.

The groups argue that the bill would cut off funding and would unnecessarily constrain their ability to work jointly with federal agencies.

"The big concern is jeopardizing what ends up being a lot of money for law enforcement in our joint efforts when we're working with our federal counterparts," said Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Assn.

"Our concern is that if that goes away, there will be fewer task forces, fewer forfeitures, fewer joint investigations, which could lead to an uptick in the presence of large-scale trafficking organizations," Hoffman said.

The federal forfeiture law dates to the 1980s as an effort to cut into the finances of drug dealers.

If police suspect an asset — such as cash, vehicles or jewelry — was used in the commission of a crime or is the proceeds of a crime, they can seize it without charging its owner or obtaining a warrant.

To recover their property, people must prove they own it and it was not used for criminal activity.

California state law is stricter; such seizures generally cannot be permanent if the owner is not convicted of a crime. But when state and local law enforcement partner with federal agencies in investigations, the federal law applies.

Such partnerships can be lucrative for state and local agencies, which are permitted to keep up to 80% of the assets seized in such joint investigations.

A report released in April 2015 by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates liberalization of drug laws, found that a number of small cities in Los Angeles County seize large amounts of property under the federal law.

Such forfeitures increased at the same time that local budgets were shrinking.

"I think folks are using this as a budget augmentation strategy," Mitchell said.

Jim Provenza, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, countered the report's findings, which said proceeds from the forfeited assets were used to buy equipment or pay for overtime, instead of funneling the resources into investigations.

"I know how our office operates — that's not really the way it works," Provenza said. "The assets seized go into pursuing major drug operations."

In January, then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder issued an order barring local and state police from confiscating property under the federal law in most circumstances.

But the policy does not have the force of law, and critics of the seizure program say that stronger protection should be enshrined in California code.

The bill by Mitchell and Hadley would expand the circumstances under which a conviction is needed for state and local agencies to keep seized assets.

It also would change how proceeds from the confiscated property are distributed among prosecutors, law enforcement and the state's general fund.

Opponents of the measure say that such a provision would conflict with federal guidelines and could put partnership with the federal government at risk.

Mitchell said nothing in the bill would prevent state and local law enforcement from engaging in appropriate activity.

The measure, SB 443, will be heard Tuesday before a committee dominated by Los Angeles-area lawmakers, whose local law enforcement agencies strongly oppose it.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

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