Pubdate: Thu, 29 Jan 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Steven Greenhut


Sacramento - In 2008, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 
received bad publicity after it handed out to employees pocketknives 
engraved with "ATF" spelled out: Always Think Forfeiture. The agency 
was, in essence, caught encouraging its employees to seize as much 
property as possible under controversial civil asset-forfeiture programs.

ATF stopped giving out the pocketknives, but federal, state and local 
agencies have come to depend increasingly on seized assets to bolster 
their budgets. Many new "toys" departments buy - fancy new vehicles, 
military-style equipment, weaponry and gadgets - are funded this way.

The issue has been in the news again recently after Attorney General 
Eric Holder announced he was paring back a federal civil-forfeiture 
program, although some observers complain national news reports made 
the reform sound more far-reaching than it really is.

If someone is convicted of, say, running a murder-for-hire operation, 
it's not unreasonable for government to grab the killer's car, cash 
and tools of the trade. But police routinely take property from 
people who have never been charged with or convicted of any crime - 
and agencies have a financial incentive to use minor allegations of 
law-breaking to grab massive amounts of loot.

Last year, I reported on Tony and Morgan Jalali, an Anaheim couple 
who own a $1.5 million office building. They rented space to a 
medical marijuana clinic they believed to be operating within state 
law. But the city accused the dispensary of illegal activity after an 
undercover officer purchased $37 in marijuana. It then tried to take 
the couple's building because of that tiny transaction by a tenant.

The case is United States of America vs. Real Property Located at 
2601 W. Ball Road. The name is revealing for two reasons. First, the 
government is not taking the property's owner to court, but is suing 
the actual property. Officials need only show the property was used 
in the commission of a crime, not prove wrongdoing by its owners.

Second, the plaintiff is the U.S. government, not the city. 
California's asset-forfeiture laws require governments to show a 
"clear and convincing" link between the property and a crime, which 
is a stricter standard than federal law. So locals routinely do an 
end-run around state law by partnering with federal agencies.

Holder's administrative reform puts the kibosh on a process whereby 
local cops grab an asset and then ask the feds to "adopt" it. Then 
federal law applies - and the feds and locals split up the booty. But 
the reform is almost meaningless. Local police can still take the 
assets if they work together with federal law enforcement agencies 
before the property is taken.

The case against the Jalalis eventually was dropped, but such 
outrages will continue given the profit motive. San Diego area police 
and prosecutors received $30 million in a seven-year period from 
asset forfeiture, according to San Diego County 
Sheriff Bill Gore told the publication the Holder decision will have 
"minimal impact" because most of its seizures come as part of 
local-federal task forces.

"The system of civil-asset forfeiture benefits an overreaching 
government bent not on protecting American civil liberties, but their 
own financial interests," said Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant 
at the Redondo Beach Police Department, and spokesperson for Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition, which lobbies for drug-law reform. 
She said police agencies have worried about what the Holder reform 
will mean for their budgets, which shows the degree to which this 
program is driven by money.

"The whole asset-forfeiture program is a direct affront on the Fifth 
Amendment that gave Americans the right to be secure in their 
property," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, in an interview 
Wednesday. It reminds him of the scene from "Alice in Wonderland" 
where the queen declares, "Sentence first, verdict afterwards."

McClintock and other members of Congress from the left and right are 
sponsoring a bill to toughen up standards of proof and require that 
seized assets go to the U.S. treasury rather than department budgets 
among other limits. More reform is needed at the state level, too.

But the last time a bill was introduced in Sacramento, police 
lobbyists crushed it. Until laws change, maybe someone can give 
police officials pocketknives with this inscription: Always Think Fairness.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom