A powerful last minute lobbying effort by a well-connected law enforcement group was more than enough to defeat a bipartisan bill in California last week that would have restricted police from seizing – and keeping – cash and property from innocent citizens.
Passing the law, the California District Attorneys Association argued, would have ended up costing state law enforcement agencies millions of dollars each year.
The CDAA also argued that requiring a conviction in order for law enforcement agencies to keep these seized assets would force prosecutors across the state to work harder.
After all, one study estimated that less than 20 percent of civil forfeiture seizures resulted in convictions.
According to the letter signed by 58 district attorneys sent to State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, the sponsor of the bill.
“The current version of the bill would essentially deny every law enforcement agency in California direct receipt of any forfeited assets. California’s asset forfeiture law will be changed for the worse, and it will cripple the ability of law enforcement to forfeit assets from drug dealers when arrest and incarceration is an incomplete strategy for combatting drug trafficking. Narcotics investigations are costly, and the California asset forfeiture law’s dedication of forfeiture proceeds to the seizing law enforcement agencies speaks to the serious needs involved when drug traffickers and their ill-gotten gains are pursued.”
As a result of the CDAA’s lobbying effort, SB 443 – which had sailed through the Senate by a vote of 38-1 in June – was roundly defeated in the Assembly last Thursday by a vote 24-41.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue the ’80s era “war on drugs” law only empowers greedy police agencies to pad their budgets by incentivizing forfeiture in police investigations that presume defendants are guilty until proven innocent.
The OC Weekly first reported on the troubling case of Anaheim landlord Tony Jalali. The businessman stood to lose a $1.5 million retirement property for a $37 pot sale after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency led a raid with the Anaheim Police Department on ReLeaf Health and Wellness in 2012.
A dispensary Jalali had already evicted.
Revenue from the seized real estate would have been gifted to the local police force under equitable sharing in forfeitures with federal agencies. The sensational case of overreach was built on a comment from Filiblunt420 on the medical marijuana dispensary review site Weedmaps.
Former California Assemblyman Chuck Devore wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee about the danger of driving with large amounts of cash due to the risk of federal drug interdiction, citing the case of the food truck owner robbed of $10,000 en route to Los Angeles to buy a high-cost item for his cash-based business.
The 2010 report Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture by the libertarian bent Institute for Justice (IFJ) found nationwide law enforcement “agencies pursue forfeitures to boost their budgets at the expense of other policing priorities.”
The Virginia-based public interest law firm found police agencies in the California keep 65 percent of all revenues generated through civil forfeiture. The practice was able to collect $305 million for police forces in an eight year period from 2000-2008.
In the six year period from 2002-2008, the IFJ found the Golden State forfeited 3,714 assets.
Even though California law “places greater limits on state and local governments in forfeiting property,” the IFJ gave the Golden State a final grade of “D” for its forfeiture policy due to equitable sharing in forfeitures with federal agencies.
A practice that the defeated SB 443 sought to curb.
But don’t expect Mitchell to retreat from the fight. She has been a vocal critic of heavy handed law enforcement practices and the police unions which empower them.
Mitchell introduced SB 227 in May. The bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown eliminates the use of a criminal grand jury to investigate cases where a member of law enforcement is alleged to have caused the death of a suspect.
“SB 443 won’t change the powers of street cops or detectives to take property or cash they believe is part of a drug operation,” Mitchell wrote in a Los Angeles Daily News opinion article in July.
However, if there is no crime proven, or no case brought, the property will be returned. That’s basic due process, and the difference between right and wrong.”
A recently enacted New Mexico law not only prohibits cops to seize money unless proof of a crime has been committed, police departments are not allowed to keep the money if with a conviction. The money is instead deposited in the general fund.
But police in New Mexico are already complaining the law is going to eat into its budget, including a multi-agency task force in Farmington that said a quarter of their $100,000 annual budget was funded through sales of seized property.
Watch the video below for more details on this controversial practice.