Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jul 2015
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Los Angeles Times
Author: Melanie Mason


Lawmakers Say Agencies Are Using 1980s Anti- Drug Laws to Compensate 
for Budget Cuts.

SACRAMENTO - State lawmakers are considering a proposal to rein in 
California law enforcement agencies' ability to keep money, cars and 
homes seized from suspects who have not been charged with a crime.

The measure is the latest effort to roll back anti-crime policies 
passed during the height of the 1980s drug wars.

Advocates of stricter confiscation rules say that the controversial 
federal seizure program is now being used by local agencies - which 
may keep most of the property they confiscate regardless of whether a 
suspect is convicted - to increase revenue and plug budget holes.

Steering the bill is an unlikely pair of Los Angeles lawmakers - Sen. 
Holly J. Mitchell, one of the Legislature's most liberal Democrats, 
and Assemblyman David Hadley, a Republican freshman from Manhattan Beach.

The bipartisan backing ref lects the national debate in which figures 
from both left and right have been calling for changes in the 
criminal justice system.

"There's too much injustice that's been carried out under the banner 
of the drug war, of getting the bad guys, which we all want to do," 
Hadley said.

"The bottom line is we shouldn't have law enforcement being paid on 
commission any more than we should have IRS agents paid on 
commission," he added.

Police groups and prosecutors are against the measure, which sailed 
through the state Senate last month and is expected to face its first 
test Tuesday in the more moderate Assembly.

The groups argue that the bill would cut off funding and would 
unnecessarily constrain their ability to work jointly with federal agencies.

"The big concern is jeopardizing what ends up being a lot of money 
for law enforcement in our joint efforts when we're working with our 
federal counterparts," said Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the 
California District Attorneys Assn.

"Our concern is that if that goes away, there will be fewer task 
forces, fewer forfeitures, fewer joint investigations, which could 
lead to an uptick in the presence of large-scale trafficking 
organizations," Hoffman said.

The federal forfeiture law dates to the 1980s as an effort to cut 
into the finances of drug dealers.

If police suspect an asset - such as cash, vehicles or jewelry - was 
used in the commission of a crime or is the proceeds of a crime, they 
can seize it without charging its owner or obtaining a warrant.

To recover their property, people must prove they own it and it was 
not used for criminal activity.

California state law is stricter; such seizures generally cannot be 
permanent if the owner is not convicted of a crime. But when state 
and local law enforcement partner with federal agencies in 
investigations, the federal law applies.

Such partnerships can be lucrative for state and local agencies, 
which are permitted to keep up to 80% of the assets seized in such 
joint investigations.

A report released in April 2015 by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group 
that advocates liberalization of drug laws, found that a number of 
small cities in Los Angeles County seize large amounts of property 
under the federal law.

Such forfeitures increased at the same time that local budgets were shrinking.

"I think folks are using this as a budget augmentation strategy," 
Mitchell said.

Jim Provenza, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles County district 
attorney's office, countered the report's findings, which said 
proceeds from the forfeited assets were used to buy equipment or pay 
for overtime, instead of funneling the resources into investigations.

"I know how our office operates - that's not really the way it 
works," Provenza said. "The assets seized go into pursuing major drug 

In January, then- U. S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder issued an order 
barring local and state police from confiscating property under the 
federal law in most circumstances.

But the policy does not have the force of law, and critics of the 
seizure program say that stronger protection should be enshrined in 
California code.

The bill by Mitchell and Hadley would expand the circumstances under 
which a conviction is needed for state and local agencies to keep 
seized assets.

It also would change how proceeds from the confiscated property are 
distributed among prosecutors, law enforcement and the state's general fund.

Opponents of the measure say that such a provision would conflict 
with federal guidelines and could put partnership with the federal 
government at risk.

Mitchell said nothing in the bill would prevent state and local law 
enforcement from engaging in appropriate activity.

The measure, SB 443, will be heard Tuesday before a committee 
dominated by Los Angeles- area lawmakers, whose local law enforcement 
agencies strongly oppose it.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom