Pubdate: Fri, 29 Apr 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Sal Rodriguez


Law enforcement should not be allowed to seize a person's assets 
before there is a criminal conviction and a clearly established nexus 
between someone's assets and criminal activity.

This very simple set of premises is completely rejected under the 
system of civil asset forfeiture, a practice which allows law 
enforcement agencies to take a person's property or cash with minimal 
due process and without a criminal conviction ever taking place.

The practice incentivizes the allocation of law enforcement resources 
to crimes and strategies that maximize the potential for generating 
revenues that boost the budgets of local police and sheriff's departments.

In 1992, law enforcement authorities in Ventura County raided the 
ranch of Donald Scott in search of an alleged marijuana growing 
operation. There were no drugs, but the early morning raid of the 
property resulted in the death of Scott. As later revealed, the 
prospect of seizing the 200-acre property was a major factor in the 
decision to launch the ill-fated raid.

The incident helped spur lawmakers in 1994 to pass sensible reforms 
that require a criminal conviction in the seizure of assets up to 
$25,000 and cap the share of money law enforcement agencies can keep 
from such seizures at 65 percent.

Under these parameters, law enforcement agencies throughout 
California still engage in asset forfeiture compliant with state law. 
In 2015, agencies across the state seized assets worth roughly $50 
million, according to a report by state Attorney General Kamala 
Harris. Topping the list were agencies in Los Angeles County, which 
seized nearly $9 million in assets, followed by Orange County at $5.8 million.

But asset forfeitures strictly under California law are only part of 
the system.

The federal government has a so-called equitable sharing program, in 
which local law enforcement agencies may partner with federal 
authorities in joint investigations and thus operate outside of the 
scope of their respective state laws. Through such partnerships only 
probable cause is necessary and local partners have been eligible for 
up to 80 percent of revenues.

For law enforcement agencies in California, going the federal route 
has been the much more lucrative option.

In 2015, the Drug Policy Alliance issued a report discussing how 
participation in federal asset forfeiture programs has distorted 
local police departments. In Los Angeles County, the small cities of 
Vernon, Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills, Gardena, Irwindale, La Verne, 
Pomona and South Gate netted a combined $43 million in revenues from 
federal asset forfeiture between 2006 and 2013. Practical 
consequences included La Verne reducing its police force in that time 
period while increasing its drug task force.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Police Department alone has received millions 
of dollars a year through equitable sharing. In fiscal year 2013 
alone, the department received nearly $5 million from equitable 
sharing. The department has largely spent that money on things like 
overtime, informants, computers and electronic surveillance equipment.

Last year, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, sought to 
restore some balance to California's use of civil asset forfeiture. 
Senate Bill 443 proposed requiring local law enforcement agencies 
participating in joint operations with the federal government to 
refrain from receiving seized assets until there was a criminal conviction.

The proposal easily cleared the state Senate, with 38 votes in favor 
and only one in opposition. This sent the law enforcement lobby into 
crisis mode. Groups like the California Police Chiefs Association 
began circulating false claims the bill would effectively end asset 
forfeitures, while the California District Attorneys Association 
argued the bill would "weaken law enforcement's ability to address 
the scourge of drugs in all of our communities."

Remarkably, the fear mongering worked, and the Assembly voted 44-24 
in opposition, with 12 abstentions. Most Assembly members from Los 
Angeles and Orange counties opposed or abstained. The bill remains on 
the inactive file and could be brought up again.

Hopefully lawmakers can someday set aside the financial interests of 
law enforcement and stand up for due process.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom