Pubdate: Sun, 05 Jul 2015
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Contact:  2015 The Orange County Register
Author: Nick Sibilla
Note: Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice.


Imagine a place where the government can seize property from people 
who have not broken the law. The police, sheriffs and prosecutors can 
auction their property off and use the proceeds to pay their own salaries.

But this isn't a Third World dictatorship. It's California.

Empowered by "civil forfeiture" laws, the government can seize - and 
keep - cash, cars and real estate without ever filing criminal 
charges. Thankfully, state Sen. Holly Mitchell has authored Senate 
Bill 443 to curb this appalling police power. SB443 already passed by 
a staggering 38-1 vote, and now awaits a key hearing before the 
Assembly Committee on Public Safety on July 14.

The bill takes aim at "equitable sharing," a federal forfeiture 
program that lets state and local agencies keep up to 80 percent of 
the proceeds of a forfeited property, even if that would bypass the 
state's tougher restrictions.

Since 2008, law enforcement agencies in California have generated and 
spent over $380 million in equitable sharing funds  the highest in 
the nation. Almost $60 million went to salaries and overtime.

Surprisingly, many small towns in Southern California have reaped 
obscene amounts of federal forfeiture revenue, according to a Drug 
Policy Alliance report released in April.

Take South Gate, which has fewer than 100,000 residents. From 2006 to 
2013, South Gate received over $8 million in equitable sharing funds, 
topping far larger cities like Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose and San 
Francisco. In recent years, South Gate even slashed its police force, 
all while doubling the number of officers who handle forfeiture cases.

But SB443 would gore these cash cows. If enacted, it would ban local 
and state agencies from receiving federal forfeiture proceeds unless 
prosecutors first convict a defendant in criminal court. No 
conviction? No confiscation.

This reform would sharply reduce the incentives for law enforcement 
to prey on innocent Californians. Tony Jalali was one such victim. 
The owner of an office building in Anaheim worth $1.5 million, Jalali 
once rented space to a medical marijuana dispensary, which was - and 
still is  legal under state law. Law enforcement never charged Jalali 
with a crime, and he never bought or sold marijuana. Nevertheless, 
his real estate soon became a tempting target.

An undercover Anaheim officer bought $37 worth of cannabis from that 
dispensary. On that basis alone, the Drug Enforcement Administration 
partnered with the Anaheim Police Department and tried to forfeit 
Jalali's property. Under state law, prosecutors must first obtain a 
criminal conviction before they can forfeit real estate. But because 
the DEA participated, Jalali's case was prosecuted under federal law, 
which has no such protection.

Had they succeeded, police in Anaheim could have received up to 80 
percent of the proceeds. Fortunately, after the Institute for Justice 
defended Jalali's property rights in a lawsuit, the federal 
government dropped the case in 2013. But unless the law is changed, 
law enforcement agencies are incentivized to circumvent California's 
state sovereignty.

In addition to tackling equitable sharing, SB443 would implement 
vital procedural protections in state court. Californians would need 
to be convicted of a crime before they could lose their property. 
Meanwhile, the bill would institute new notice requirements, 
establish court-appointed counsel for indigent owners and allow those 
who "substantially prevail" in a civil forfeiture case to recover 
attorney's fees.

Reform is gaining traction. New Mexico recently abolished civil 
forfeiture and, just as crucially, now bans transferring seized 
property to federal agencies, unless the property is worth at least 
$50,000. After passing the state legislature unanimously, the bill 
was signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, herself a former 
district attorney and twice-named New Mexico's "Prosecutor of the Year."

The government cannot treat citizens like ATMs. Californians must no 
longer forfeit their rights.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom