Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jun 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Liam Dillon


Bill Targets the Taking of People's Property Without a Conviction.

SACRAMENTO - Almost a year after California lawmakers rejected 
legislation that would restrict police departments' ability to take 
cars, cash, homes and other property from suspected criminals without 
a conviction, the bill's author is trying again as similar efforts 
succeed across the country.

The practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, gained currency during 
the height the drug war in the 1980s as a way for law enforcement to 
financially cripple drug lords and fund anti-narcotics operations. 
But advocates for reforming the laws say too often police officers 
ensnare innocent residents who are poor and have few resources to 
ensure their property is returned.

A bill from state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) would require 
state and local police to get a criminal conviction before taking 
people's money or other assets.

"There are some innocent people whose assets have been forfeited, and 
there are some of us who feel that's unacceptable," Mitchell said.

Lawmakers in Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., 
have already taken similarly strong steps to rein in civil forfeiture 
in recent years, along with a number of other states that have 
tightened their own guidelines.

Behind these efforts is an unlikely coalition of supporters including 
labor and civil rights groups, as well as conservative and 
libertarian organizations concerned about property rights.

Mitchell, considered one of the most liberal members of the 
Legislature, said she couldn't think of another issue that aligned 
her with billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch, who is an 
opponent of asset forfeiture.

On the other side of Mitchell's push are law enforcement groups that 
are sounding an alarm about their ability to target high-level drug 
dealers should the bill pass.

After sailing through the state Senate and the Assembly's public 
safety and appropriations committees, Mitchell's bill landed with a 
thud on the Assembly floor in September, falling 17 votes short of passage.

Before that vote, nearly every district attorney in the state signed 
a letter against the measure. Numerous police chiefs and sheriffs did the same.

Now, Mitchell is bringing back the bill for another try in the 
Assembly with few substantive changes, arguing that requiring a 
criminal conviction before an asset gets taken is the right policy.

Law enforcement opposition to the bill, SB 443, remains just as 
strong as last year.

"At its core, SB 443 sends basically a message to drug dealers that 
the cost of doing business has gone down," Ventura County Dist. Atty. 
Gregory Totten said.

Last month, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union 
released a report that included stories of Californians who said they 
had a few thousand dollars or cars seized while they were leaving 
work, or when they bought a car from a friend.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the 
decriminalization of drugs, hired a pollster who found that 10% of 
residents in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties knew 
someone who had lost property to law enforcement without first being 
convicted of a crime.

By contrast, law enforcement groups say the pracof is an essential 
tool in combating drug trafficking. When police arrest low-level 
cartel members with large sums of money in their cars, the driver 
isn't the primary target, Totten said.

"In many, many narcotics-trafficking cases, we're not able to 
actually identify some of the higher-ups in the organization whose 
money we're seizing," he said. "That's just the nature of illicit 
drug trafficking."

David Hadley, a Republican assemblyman from Manhattan Beach and a 
coauthor of Mitchell's bill, said law enforcement agencies were 
fighting hard against changes to the civil forfeiture process because 
of the hit to their budgets. It's on the Legislature, he said, to 
boost funding for public safety so that police don't have to rely on 
taking people's property to pay for what they need.

"When you get outside of [the Capitol], you get a general consensus 
that something like this in its broad form should not be happening in 
the United States," Hadley said.

No one disputes, however, that civil forfeiture provides significant 
money to police budgets.

In 2015, California police departments received $86 million in civil 
forfeiture dollars from the federal government, which distributes 80% 
of the proceeds from joint task forces involving federal agents and 
state and local police back to localities.

Mitchell's bill primarily goes after California police departments' 
ability to get money from the federal government, which allows state 
and local law enforcement to conduct forfeitures. Currently, federal 
officials don't require a conviction to take a person's assets, only 
a civil case with a lower burden of proof.

Federal officials have told state law enforcement groups that since 
the federal government doesn't track criminal convictions, California 
police might no longer be able to get paid for participating in task 
forces, which could effectively end them.

Mitchell's office said it had received assurances from the Justice 
Department that the bill would not conflict with federal guidelines. 
The federal government's current regulations, Mitchell said, are no 
reason to continue the current situation.

"That's like the IRS saying we don't have the computer-based system 
to return your tax return, Ms. Mitchell, so we don't have to," she 
said. "The Department of Justice is going to have to figure it out. 
That's ridiculous."

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Mitchell's 
bill, but said the agency had no plans to change its rules should the 
measure pass.

Mitchell won't say when she plans to bring her bill up for another 
vote before the Legislature adjourns on Aug. 31.

"We're coming up against pretty big guns, figuratively and 
literally," she said. "And I'm acutely aware of that."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom