California lawmakers move toward limiting police seizures of property without a criminal conviction

Major law enforcement groups and state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) have reached a deal on legislation to limit the ability of police in California to permanently seize cars, cash, homes and other property from suspected criminals without a conviction, potentially paving the way for California to join the growing list of states that have reined in the practice.

Known as civil asset forfeiture, the tactic began in earnest as a response to the drug war in the 1980s, allowing law enforcement to fund their anti-narcotics operations by taking drug dealers’ property. But a diverse group of critics, including immigrant and anti-poverty groups alongside libertarians such as billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch, have argued that the law has allowed officers to take innocent, impoverished residents’ property without providing enough recourse to get it back.

Under changes to Mitchell’s bill introduced Thursday, any property seizure in California worth less than $40,000 would now require a criminal conviction before police could take permanent action. Seizures higher than that amount would still allow for a lower burden of proof, such as the standard used in civil cases.

The $40,000 threshold is an attempt to balance advocates’ desire that those in poverty don’t lose their property unless they’re convicted of wrongdoing and law enforcement’s interest in preserving its ability to go after large criminal enterprises, Mitchell said.

“It's those private citizens who could not be convicted of a crime whose assets that we need to protect,” Mitchell said.

As a result of the compromise, major law enforcement groups, including organizations representing police chiefs and district attorneys statewide, have dropped their opposition to the bill, SB 443.

Last year, that opposition stymied Mitchell’s original version of the measure, which would have required a criminal conviction before the permanent forfeiture of property in nearly all cases. 

Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, the head of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said in a statement that his group was comfortable that under the new language police could still use the practice for its primary purpose.

“With the agreement on SB 443, conflicting sides took into consideration each other’s views and found 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,” Corney said. “This kind of proactive and collaborative effort demonstrates the strength between California law enforcement, political leadership and our communities.”

At least four other states have passed similarly strict asset forfeiture reforms in recent years. But Lee McGrath, an attorney with the libertarian Institute of Justice advocacy group, which is tracking reforms nationwide, said Mitchell’s bill stands out because of the across-the-board threshold requiring a criminal conviction before a permanent seizure.

“This is one of the strongest reforms enacted in any state,” McGrath said.

Mitchell expects to have a full vote in the Assembly on her bill in the coming days. The bill would still need approval in the state Senate and Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature before it would become law.

liam.dillon@latimes.com

Follow me at @dillonliam on Twitter

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