Bill that would rein in asset seizures by police advances in the Assembly

A measure that would curb California law enforcement authorities’ ability to retain cash and cars seized from people not charged with a crime was approved in a key Assembly panel Tuesday.

The legislation would limit the use of a controversial federal law, dating to the 1980s drug war, that allows law enforcement agencies to keep money, vehicles and other assets if they suspect they were used to commit a crime or are the proceeds of illegal activity. The owner need not be convicted or even charged with a crime.

California law is generally more stringent, requiring a conviction in many cases. But when California authorities partner with federal officials through joint investigations or task forces, the federal rules apply, with state and local authorities allowed to keep up to 80% of the proceeds from the seized assets.

Critics of the forfeiture law say local agencies are using those proceeds to buy equipment and pay for personnel in an era of shrinking budgets.

Under the bill by Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach), state and law local authorities would be able to keep most confiscated property only if the owner is convicted of wrongdoing.

“The idea that law enforcement can permanently seize a person's assets with no conviction — with the onus on the accused person to prove their innocence — has been surprising,” Mitchell said at the Assembly Public Safety committee hearing.

She said the bill “reestablishes the most basic tenets of constitutional law and values, and ensures that California state law is being adhered to.”

Law enforcement groups oppose the bill, SB 443, saying it could constrain their ability to partner with federal authorities to investigate drug trafficking operations.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Assn. and other police groups, said the bill's conviction requirement is “deceptively simple” and does account for instances when a conviction cannot be obtained — for example, if a suspect flees or dies before trial.

The measure now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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