Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Sal Rodriguez
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


At least one barrier to asset forfeiture reform has been cleared, as 
a compromise has been reached between law enforcement groups and 
state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles.

Last year, California seemed set to join a growing number of states 
in reforming civil asset forfeiture, a means by which law enforcement 
agencies can seize a person's assets without first obtaining a 
criminal conviction.

As initially conceived, Senate Bill 443, bipartisan legislation 
authored by Sen. Mitchell and Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Torrance, 
would have required a criminal conviction before assets in excess of 
$25,000 could be seized, granted a right to counsel for the indigent 
and authorized attorney's fees for those who successfully appeal 
forfeiture cases, among other requirements.

The bill sailed through the state Senate, which approved the bill 
38-1, with only Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, in opposition. Leyva, 
incidentally, represents Pomona, which happened to be a prolific user 
of asset forfeiture, yielding $14 million in revenue between 2006 and 
2013, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. But backlash from law 
enforcement groups abruptly put to a halt to reform. Groups like the 
California District Attorneys Association and the California State 
Sheriffs' Association warned lawmakers against the bill. The CDAA 
argued that passage of SB 443 "will cripple the ability of law 
enforcement to forfeit assets from drug dealers."

The messaging worked, as the Assembly rejected the bill 44-24, with 
12 members not voting.

Nearly a year later, a deal has been reached to make it sufficiently 
palatable to the state's law enforcement lobby. Amendments were made 
on August 4 requiring a criminal conviction for seizures valued under 
$40,000. In cases where seized assets are valued at greater than 
$40,000, the standard of "clear and convincing evidence" is used.

"We believe those amendments strike an appropriate balance between 
addressing the due process concerns of the proponents of SB 443 and 
making sure that law enforcement retains an important tool to 
effectively combat large drug trafficking organizations," Sean 
Hoffman of the CDAA told me via email.

The CDAA and the CSSA have dropped their opposition to the bill as a 
result of those changes.

Though not quite what it was when initially proposed, the bill, 
fortunately, represents a much-needed step in the right direction and 
adds to existing protections under state law.

In 1994, California approved Assembly Bill 114, requiring a 
conviction before assets up to $25,000 can be seized, and capping the 
amount of money law enforcement agencies may keep in order to reduce 
any incentive to focus on cases which might yield financial gain for 
law enforcement agencies.

The reform, however, only applied to seizures undertaken by state and 
local law enforcement agencies operating within the boundaries of 
state law. For decades, law enforcement agencies in California 
circumvented state law by cooperating with federal law enforcement.

Through what is called "equitable sharing," state and local police 
departments that engage in joint investigations with federal agencies 
have been able to keep up to 80 percent of assets seized, without the 
burden of having to wait for a criminal conviction.

This has incentivized widespread participation in federal law 
enforcement operations, particularly anti-drug task forces. According 
to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2013, California law enforcement 
agencies yielded nearly $100 million in revenue from federal 
cooperation, versus roughly $20 million in cases pursued under state law.

SB 443 requires a conviction in federal cases before state and local 
agencies can cash in, and requires the state attorney general to 
collect information about such seizures.

In the interest of justice, hopefully, California will finally do the 
right thing and adopt the reforms.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom