Pubdate: Thu, 05 Feb 2015
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Press Democrat
Author: Paul Payne


Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to end part of a controversial 
asset forfeiture program that critics say allows law enforcement to 
seize personal assets without proof that a crime has been committed 
will have little effect on the North Coast, where police agencies 
operate largely without federal government participation.

Holder announced last month he would no longer adopt cases from local 
police under the so-called "Equitable Sharing" program, which 
provides for the return of up to 80 percent of the proceeds of any 
criminal enterprise to initiating agencies.

But because such seizures make up less than a 10th of the total 
amount of money confiscated each year in the region known for its 
cash-rich marijuana trade, Holder's policy will have a negligible 
impact, prosecutors and attorneys said.

"It's not going to make any difference at all," said Brenda 
Grantland, a Mill Valley lawyer who specializes in asset forfeiture 
defense. "It's really just window dressing."

In fact, Holder has included "work-around" language in his policy 
that will, in effect, give local agencies the option of continuing to 
work with the feds, who give a larger share of proceeds than under 
state law, Grantland said.

The formation of multi-agency task forces in which local police 
officers are cross-deputized as federal agents could nullify any ban 
on federal adoption, Grantland said.

Just how many Sonoma County officers are in multi-agency units was 
unclear. Petaluma police have one officer who could continue to 
handle cases that fall under the federal asset forfeiture program, 
Lt. Dan Fish said.

Across the nation, asset forfeiture has surged since the advent of 
the war on drugs, jumping to $4 billion in 2013, according to 
published reports. The assets are largely tied to the drug trade but 
are often the product of other criminal enterprise.

In Sonoma County, local agencies took in nearly $8 million over the 
past five years, mostly in marijuana cases, prosecutors said.

The seizures are allowed under state and federal law when authorities 
suspect assets are "ill-gotten" profits. Neither requires proof of a 
crime for amounts over $25,000, but a conviction is necessary in 
state law to seize assets valued at less than $25,000.

Also under state law, seizing agencies keep up to 65 percent of the 
proceeds compared to up to 80 percent under federal law. The money 
must be spent on mandated crime-prevention programs.

Critics said the law gives officers an incentive to confiscate 
personal assets without justification.

At first, Holder's Jan. 16 announcement appeared to address that 
criticism. He said the government would stop taking over cases 
originated by local agencies.

But he left open the door for federal agencies to continue handling 
their own cases. And his policy would have no effect on cases at the 
state and local level.

Sonoma County prosecutor Bud McMahon, who heads the district 
attorney's asset forfeiture program, agreed the attorney general's 
policy would have little bearing on local seizures. He said his 
office could absorb cases that otherwise might go to the federal 
government, but those cases are rare.

Among the most noteworthy exceptions came last year, when sheriff's 
deputies seized $1.4 million in cash and a trove of gold and silver 
coins during a Sebastopol house fire. The money was suspected of 
being the proceeds of marijuana sales.

But before anyone was charged with a crime, the case was handed off 
to federal authorities who confiscated the money.

It was unusual considering more than 90 percent of the seizure cases 
handled sheriff's detectives remain at the local level.

Sgt. Steve Gossett, who supervises the sheriff's drug enforcement 
unit, said the $1.4 million in cash and precious metals was "a small 
percentage of the total" of seized assets. Many assets are later 
returned to owners, he said.

A spokesman for Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster also 
estimated federal involvement at about 10 percent.

Criminal defense attorneys had different predictions about what would 
happen as a result of the new federal policy.

Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa said that could be a good thing for 
his clients because under state law, they have more rights. For one 
thing, he said, medical marijuana is a viable defense.

"The feds don't care about medical marijuana," Figueroa said. "In 
state court, if someone is a medical marijuana patient, the 
government can't get a conviction. It's good news for the medical 
cannabis community."

Another Sebastopol attorney, Michael Shambrook, was less optimistic. 
He said Holder's pronouncement is a shift in the mindset about assets 
connected to marijuana but will have little practical effect on asset 
seizures in the immediate future.

"I don't expect anything big to play out," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom