Pubdate: Sun, 07 Aug 2016
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Debra J. Saunders
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Republican political consultant Mike Madrid isn't used to getting 
calls from the ACLU, and yet he has found himself working with the 
civil liberties group because some practices are so egregious that 
Republicans and Democrats should have no trouble finding common 
cause. The issue is civil asset forfeiture - also known as "policing 
for profit." The federal government can seize your property, and the 
only way you can get it back is to prove you are not guilty of a 
crime. California law prohibits local authorities from permanently 
seizing most property without a conviction, but there's a loophole in 
the law - called "equitable sharing." Local police can seize your 
property, hand jurisdiction over the feds, and get rewarded with up 
to 80 percent of the goodies even if prosecutors fail to convict - or 
even charge - an offender.

"There are very few things in Sacramento that are this cut and dry," 
quoth Madrid. Americans fought the British in the Revolutionary War 
in order to guarantee due process and the presumption of innocence. 
"If you were not convicted," Madrid noted, "people shouldn't be 
taking your stuff."

With that reasoning in mind, Madrid began working for the passage of 
Senate Bill 443, introduced by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los 
Angeles, to curb "equitable sharing" abuses. She was spurred by a 
Drug Policy Alliance report on the civil asset forfeiture abuses. 
While supporters talk about the practice as a tool to defund drug 
cartels, the report found that on average, the seizures were small 
change. San Diego attorney Loean T. Shillinger told me many of her 
clients are small-business owners who drive with cash in the car. 
Mitchell recalls a food-truck driver who had $10,000 when police 
asked to search his car. He had nothing to hide. Next thing people in 
his situation know, they have to hire a lawyer if they want their 
money back. And they are shocked to discover the government can treat 
law-abiding people under the assumption that they are guilty.

SB443 was a good cause, and so it sailed even through the 
dysfunctional swamp known as the Legislature. It sped through state 
Senate committees and passed the Senate with an overwhelming 38 (out 
of 40) votes last year.

Then came "the badges," as Madrid put it. Mitchell put it another 
way, "It was as if I put my hand in their entitled cookie jar." 
California law enforcement came down hard on lawmakers from both 
parties. The California District Attorneys Association opposed SB443, 
director of legislation Sean Hoffman told me, because it was "overly 
broad" and "would have really crippled asset forfeiture in 
California" and hampered prosecutors ability to go after "large drug 
operations." Support melted away. By the time SB443 reached the 
Assembly floor, only 24 members voted "aye" and 44 opposed it. Like 
cockroaches, 12 members skittered away from voting entirely.

Law enforcement soon learned that it had won the kind of legislative 
victory that leaves a public-relations stain on the victors. The mere 
consideration of the measure aired stories of high-profile abuses - 
such as when prosecutors have used asset forfeiture to seize 
buildings from landlords of a medical marijuana dispensary.

Both sides had an incentive to work together. On Thursday, the 
Assembly voted to amend SB443. Absent a guilty verdict, locals can 
only get a cut when more than $40,000 in cash has been seized. Locals 
still will get no percentage of property seizures without a guilty 
verdict. The district attorneys now are neutral on the measure. 
Expect SB443 to pass in the Assembly soon.

Until then, consider the words of Daisy Vieyra of the American Civil 
Liberties Union: "It can happen to anyone, that's the frightening part."

Mitchell told me that, as she listened to public comments about her 
bill, she realized "it could have been me." Her late mother had a 
fondness for casino gambling. Every year Mitchell would drive her 
mother to Las Vegas for a weekend with one-armed bandits. The two 
would drive home with cash - two African American woman in a 
"high-profile" automobile with smiles on their faces. They didn't do 
anything wrong, but under the current system, their holdings would be 
presumed guilty.


Not guilty? Who cares?

In 2013, an Anaheim police officer used a doctor's recommendation to 
purchase $37 worth of marijuana at a medical marijuana dispensary. As 
a result of that transaction, the federal government tried to seize 
the two-story commercial building from landlord Tony Jalali. An 
immigrant from Iran, Jalali didn't think the government could try to 
take his building because of a crime he did not commit, especially 
because, he told the Los Angeles Times, he thought the dispensary was 
legal since California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996. 
Jalali's attorney, Larry Salzman, then of the Institute for Justice, 
observed that thanks to an unholy alliance called "equitable sharing" 
- - the feds use federal law to seize property, then pass on up to 80 
percent of what they seize to local law enforcement - officials have 
an incentive to go after people who did not commit crimes. 
Eventually, prosecutors dropped the case to seize Jalali's building. 
Why? Salzman believes it's because Jalali "got lawyers who were 
experts on civil forfeiture" who were prepared to fight back. Without 
high-powered representation, Jalali could have lost his property, 
even though he wasn't guilty of a crime.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom