Pubdate: Thu, 16 Jul 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 - Recent news stories and studies have documented the 
degree to which California law enforcement agencies use something 
called "civil asset forfeiture" to take cars, cash and even real 
estate from people who have never been accused of a crime.

They need only offer probable cause the property has been used in the 
commission of a crime - and then it is fair game. There is so much 
financial incentive that some police agencies are accused of focusing 
their limited resources on forfeiture-related matters that bolster 
their budgets rather than on traditional crime fighting. It's outrageous.

But the abuses might be coming to an end in California - and with 
broad bipartisan support. Senate Bill 443 by Sen. Holly Mitchell, 
D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Torrance, doesn't 
impede the ability of law enforcement agencies to go after the kind 
of drug kingpins asset-forfeiture laws had originally targeted. But 
it will impose a steeper burden of proof so that agencies are less 
apt to view law-abiding citizens as cash cows.

The bill passed the full Senate on a 38-1 vote, and on Tuesday passed 
out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee on a 6-0 vote, despite 
intense opposition by law enforcement agencies. But most of foes' 
arguments reinforce the purpose of the bill. Their main complaint is, 
as a California Association of Police Chiefs fact sheet explains, it 
"would significantly reduce distribution amounts to local law 
enforcement." What about the obvious conflict of interest in tying 
policing actions with profit?

The bill's supporters see something much more important than money at 
stake. "I just think this is a core American principle of justice 
that you can't have your life, liberty or property taken from you 
without due process of law and the fact that has not been the case 
with civil asset forfeiture for a couple decades I think is a 
national mistake, but we have a chance to correct it," Hadley said.

Asset forfeiture emerged during the Reagan administration to target 
the proceeds of big-time drug traffickers. Hadley's office sent me an 
article from two former heads of the U.S. Justice Department's Asset 
Forfeiture Office who now call it an "evil." The profit motive "led 
to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what 
cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than on 
an evenhanded effort to enforce the law," wrote John Yoder and Brad 
Cates in The Washington Post.

Federal reforms didn't slow the abuses. Nor did state reforms. In 
California, local police agencies have evaded California's 
more-stringent rules by partnering with the federal government 
through something called "equitable sharing." The locals invite the 
feds into an operation, which lets them function under federal law - 
and then they split the loot.

Sen. Mitchell became concerned about what she read in a recent report 
by the Drug Policy Alliance, which showed how some smaller cities in 
Los Angeles County were particularly reliant on asset forfeiture to 
fund their budgets.

She believed the timing was right for the bill given the attention 
the issue has received, including from the current U.S. Justice 
Department, which passed some restrictions on asset-forfeiture abuse.

"What's been interesting frankly are the extremes to which the 
opposition has gone in justifying their current actions...," she 
said. "In the middle of the huge drug explosion, law enforcement and 
elected officials wanted to try to do anything and everything to get 
ahead of it.... (T)his whole notion of seizing the Miami Vice 
speedboats was what we all envisioned." But that's no longer the 
reality, she explained, given how the system now often targets 
law-abiding citizens.

SB 443 requires that agencies obtain a criminal conviction before 
taking someone's property. It also forbids them from transferring 
property to federal agencies to evade tougher state requirements. And 
it will let people recover attorney's fees if they prevail - an 
important reform given that many people don't fight even the most 
unjust forfeitures because they can't afford the legal costs.

Justice should trump profiteering. It's nice that most legislators 
seem to recognize that fact.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom