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Report: Small L.A. County cities seize large amounts in civil forfeitures

Drug decriminalization group issues report criticizing law enforcement seizures

A handful of small Los Angeles County cities seize large amounts of cash and cars using a controversial federal law that allows them to confiscate property even when owners aren’t charged with a crime, according to a report published by an advocacy group that promotes decriminalization of drugs.

The seizures by police in South Gate, Beverly Hills, Baldwin Park and other relatively small cities dwarf those made by much larger police departments in California from 2006 through 2013, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Pomona reaped more than $14 million, exceeding assets collected in the considerably larger cities of Oakland, Long Beach, Fresno and Bakersfield combined, said the report, which is expected to be published Tuesday morning.

Law enforcement agencies keep up to 80% of property seized under what’s known as civil asset forfeiture, and several cities appear to rely on the revenue at a time of dwindling police budgets, potentially creating pressure on cops to make more seizures, according to the alliance, which has long been critical of the practice and called for reform.

The criticism comes amid mounting concerns nationwide that forfeiture leads to abuses, with reports of police taking cash, cars and even homes based on little or no evidence of a crime. In federal court, owners who seek a return of their seized property face the burden of proving it was not the product of criminal activity.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the need for reform. And some states have already taken steps to reform local forfeiture laws, with New Mexico approving new rules this month so that local police can only confiscate assets if a person is found guilty of a crime.

California requires a conviction to justify keeping seized assets of up to $25,000. For larger amounts of money, police must show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the property was connected to drug sales or manufacturing – a higher standard than the “probable cause” required under federal law. In addition, police departments receive 65% of seizures under California law compared with up to 80% under federal law.

Because of such reforms, the Drug Policy Alliance contends, local law enforcement agencies in California are skirting the state’s stricter rules by using federal law to seize assets.

“Seizing the cash and property of potentially innocent citizens who are never charged with a crime is no way to fund public safety,” Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “This report is a wake-up call to all Californians.”

Some disputed the report’s claims that agencies are prioritizing seizures over core law enforcement functions, such as patrol. John Lovell, a law enforcement lobbyist and legislative counsel for the California Narcotics Officers' Assn., said civil asset forfeiture disrupts drug organizations by aiming at their profits. Lovell said it was no surprise that an advocacy group that opposes drug laws would criticize civil asset forfeitures.

“That’s like saying the tobacco industry is critical of anti-smoking ads,” he said.

Still, others also have raised concerns about civil asset forfeitures, which were designed to target the riches of drug trafficking organizations and cripple their operations.

At last week’s Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he believes forfeitures encourage “law enforcement to take short cuts” and that “the process creates perverse incentives.”

In January, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder announced reforms restricting when local agencies can use federal law to seize assets. The Drug Policy Alliance report said the change did not go far enough, saying most of the money local agencies reap from federal forfeitures involves assets seized while working with a federal agency on a joint investigation.

In California, state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has introduced reform legislation. The Drug Policy Alliance is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The alliance said its report was compiled by a freelance journalist using records obtained from the U.S. Justice Department, the federal Treasury Department and local government entities.

California law enforcement agencies received nearly $600 million from civil asset forfeitures under federal law from 2006 through 2013, according to the Drug Policy Alliance’s report. State forfeitures brought in about $140 million.

Even tiny cities took in sizable amounts of forfeiture revenue by working with the U.S. Department of Justice. Vernon, with 112 people, took in nearly $1 million; and Irwindale, with fewer than 1,500 residents, received more than $800,000, the report said. Beverly Hills collected more than $7.3 million; La Verne more than $3 million; and South Gate more than $7.6 million.

The report said police departments use forfeited assets to buy cars, computers, helicopters and air surveillance equipment, and to pay for overtime. Cities have increased asset forfeitures at a time when their budgets were being slashed and some appear to have improperly budgeted for future forfeiture revenue, said the report, which called for federal audits of cities as well as legal reform.

Police Capt. Ty Henshaw of Irwindale said his department has not aggressively pursued forfeitures and does not depend on seized assets to make budget. He said the agency’s seizures primarily resulted from helping other law enforcement agencies in drug cases.

“It’s not a very good practice to rely on forfeiture funds,” he said. “It’s nice to have, but you can’t count on it.”

Beverly Hills police Lt. Lincoln Hoshino said his department’s increased federal forfeiture assets are most likely the result of participation with federal task forces. Pomona’s finance director, Paula Chamberlain, disputed several claims in the report, including that spending left the city’s forfeiture fund with a shortfall last year.

Other police departments did not respond to requests for comment.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Penny Schneider, who is in charge of asset forfeitures for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said prosecutors approach forfeiture cases “with the same amount of care and consideration” as they would a criminal case.

“It is a tool ... to prevent drug traffickers from enjoying the fruits of their crime,” she said. “It isn’t a revenue source.”

But Jim Roberts, a San Jose-based attorney who specializes in forfeiture cases, said he’d seen rampant abuse and intimidation by law enforcement agencies.

He recalled a woman in her 80s who purchased a Palo Alto home for a disabled sister, only to have police move to seize it when the octogenarian’s son, who was living in a back room, was photographed leaving the home for another location where he sold cocaine. Roberts said police dropped the seizure attempt only after he filed legal papers on her behalf.

Another client, Roberts said, was an indie rock band driving through a rural county on tour when the cash they were carrying to pay their road crew was seized and they were threatened with money laundering charges, Roberts said.

The attorney said that in many cases, people don’t fight the seizures because of the legal costs, or they settle for getting a portion of their property back rather than go through a legal battle. He said he advises prospective clients not to bother fighting some cases because it would cost more than the assets are worth.

“Drug asset forfeiture has become a form of legalized theft and extortion by the government,” he said.

For more news, follow @vicjkim

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