Pubdate: Fri, 26 Aug 2016
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Sacramento Bee
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Of all the wrongs meted out by the criminal justice system, few are 
more unfair to poor, mostly minority Americans than the way police 
abuse civil asset forfeiture laws.

Every year, cops seize and keep millions of dollars in cash and 
property from people who haven't been charged with - or convicted of 
- - a crime. They do it without warrants and use proceeds from the 
seized assets to pad depleted police department budgets.

Stories abound of Californians being pulled over for minor traffic 
offenses only to have their vehicles towed away and cash taken. 
Nationally, police take more property from Americans than burglars 
do, violating rights in the name of fighting crime.

Sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk is a chance to help right this 
wrong. All he has to do is sign Senate Bill 443

The bill, from Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, would require 
officers to get a conviction before keeping property they seize. The 
only exception - a compromise with law enforcement groups - is for 
cash in excess of $40,000. Doing anything else would make it harder 
to break up drug trafficking rings, police say. We'll buy that.

This bill is a big step toward reforming a legitimate practice that 
began in the 1980s as a way for cops to cripple drug kingpins, but it 
has morphed into a convenient revenue stream - not unlike excessive 
fines and fees levied on the poor.

Researchers have found that some police departments actually budget 
for future revenue from forfeitures. Others don't report the revenue 
to auditors or track the seized assets at all. This has led to number 
of states enacting reforms.

California's property protection laws are better than many states'. 
Police can only keep about 60 percent of the revenue from the assets 
they seize in cases that are prosecuted locally.

The problem is a loophole that lets cases be prosecuted under federal 
law. Here, California has been particularly egregious. In the past 
decade, the number of cases transferred to federal control has 
tripled, allowing police to bypass the state's stricter laws.

Plus, under the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which has its own 
issues, police can keep up to 80 percent of proceeds from seized 
assets in those cases - and a conviction isn't required.

For people trying to get their property back, federal court is a big 
hurdle, even with an attorney, and so they often just give up. 
Mitchell's bill addresses this, too, requiring a conviction before 
keeping seized assets for federal and state cases.

It's not perfect, but it would be a measure of justice in an imperfect system.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom