Pubdate: Sun, 12 Jun 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Nick Sibilla
Note: Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice.
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Circumventing state laws designed to protect Californians from 
abusive police seizures, law enforcement agencies have routinely 
seized property from people never even charged with a crime. But 
later this month, lawmakers are expected to vote on a sweeping 
overhaul of "civil forfeiture."

Numerous scandals have plagued civil forfeiture in California. One of 
the most infamous was the botched drug raid that killed reclusive 
millionaire Donald Scott. Searching for a suspected marijuana grow 
operation, 30 law enforcement officers from seven agencies, including 
the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, the DEA, the LAPD and the 
National Guard, raided Scott's 200-acre ranch in 1992. Rendering the 
scene downright surreal, personnel from the National Park Service, 
U.S. Forest Service and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were also on 
site. No drugs were found.

Months after the raid, the Ventura County District Attorney concluded 
that "forfeiture was at least one of the motivating factors" behind 
the raid. (Tellingly, two of the officers present were from the L.A. 
County Sheriff's asset forfeiture unit.)

Spurred to act, California lawmakers enacted sweeping reforms in 
1994. To better protect the due process rights of Californians, law 
enforcement would first need a criminal conviction before real 
estate, vehicles and cash under $25,000 could be forfeited to the 
state. Today, only 10 states require a criminal conviction as a 
prerequisite in most or all forfeiture cases.

Unfortunately, the law failed to address a federal forfeiture program 
that has incentivized police to do an end-run around California law. 
If an agency collaborates with the feds, they can collect up to 80 
percent of the forfeiture proceeds through "equitable sharing." 
According to a report by the Institute for Justice, between 2000 and 
2013, California law enforcement received almost $700 million from 
the U.S. Department of Justice. By comparison, agencies collected 
less than $280 million through state forfeiture laws during that same period.

Determined to restore respect for federalism and civil liberties, 
state Sen. Holly Mitchell and Assemblyman David Hadley are 
co-authoring Senate Bill 443. Before California agencies could 
collect funding through equitable sharing, SB443 would oblige that 
defendants first be convicted of a crime in federal court. The bill 
would also expand the state's conviction requirement to all types of 
property and for all amounts. The bill received widespread, 
bipartisan support in the Senate, but stalled in the Assembly last year.

Law enforcement officials typically defend forfeiture laws for 
"taking the profit out of crime." Yet the Institute for Justice found 
that, out of all equitable-sharing forfeitures in California from 
2000-13, half were under $8,920. Such modest sums are a far cry from 
confiscating the assets of drug kingpins. Moreover, equitable sharing 
plainly circumvents state law. Out of the $2.5 billion spent in 
federal forfeiture funds since 2008, the Washington Post found that 
"in 81 percent of cases no one was indicted."

Speaking on the Assembly floor last year, one lawmaker claimed SB443 
was unnecessary because of a federal policy shift. In one of his last 
acts as attorney general, in January 2015, Eric Holder announced a 
curb on "adoptive" seizures, one of the most abusive practices 
involving equitable sharing. Yet that change proved to be rather 
modest: adoption accounted for only 17 percent of federal forfeiture 
proceeds collected in California. Critically, Holder's order did not 
apply to joint task forces and investigations, which comprised the 
rest of California's federal forfeiture proceeds.

By enacting SB443, California can join states like New Mexico and 
Nebraska, which recently limited forfeiture to convicted criminals 
and tightly restricted transferring seized property for litigation 
through equitable sharing. Absent further reform, California agencies 
will continue to police for profit.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom