One of the markers of the nation’s anti-drug frenzy in the 1980s was a sharp increase in civil asset forfeitures, in which law enforcement agencies seize the cash, cars and other property that they claim are used in the commission of crimes. They are able to target and penalize a suspected drug dealer, for example, even when they can’t win a criminal conviction. What’s more, instead of turning a seized asset over to the Treasury, police and prosecutors can divide it among their own agencies, giving them an incentive to stage ever-more aggressive and questionable seizures.
Some of the worst abuses of this flouting of fundamental property rights have been corrected by state legislatures (including California’s) over the years with laws that, for example, require the assets to be returned unless the putative owner is charged and convicted.
Even in California, though, property valued at more than $25,000 may be kept without a conviction if the police win a civil proceeding that targets the property itself rather than the suspect. The case need not be proved by the well-known “beyond a reasonable doubt” criminal standard but instead a lower civil standard.
And there remains another gaping loophole: Federal seizure laws remain in effect, and they don’t require convictions; and by partnering with federal agencies, local police can operate under federal instead of California laws and continue taking and keeping a cut of the seized property for themselves — without ever charging the property owner with a crime. Abuses continue.
They would be curbed by SB 443, a bill sponsored in the Legislature by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). It would require the return of property seized even in partnership with a federal agency, unless there is a criminal conviction. And even if there is a conviction, the money would have to be distributed more widely and not be simply divvied up among the cops and prosecutors, the locals and the feds.
The proposal would be even better if the money had to be turned over to a city’s or county’s general fund, or was otherwise separated from the budgets of the agencies conducting the raids and seizures. A fundamental tenet of law enforcement reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries was that officers should be paid decent wages, and police and other agencies should be properly funded so that they need not resort to shakedowns and intimidation to keep the money coming in.
But the bill still represents an important step away from the status quo and deserves support later this week in committee and then on the Assembly floor.