California Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill That Closes Federal Loophole, Adds Conviction Requirement
from the another-win-after-years-of-losses dept
After years of civil asset forfeiture abuse, legislators are finally fighting back. Reform bills have been offered up all over the country. Unfortunately, very few of them have made it to state governors’ desks intact. The DOJ itself has played an integral part in thwarting true forfeiture reform, but legislators are also battling powerful police unions and a law enforcement lobby that needs to do little more than say the words “drug dealer” to convince fence-straddlers to come down on their side.
New Mexico’s legislature passed one of the most stringent forfeiture reform bills in the nation, only to see it ignored by local police departments who viewed it as applicable only to state law enforcement agencies. We’ll see if the same thing happens in California, where another significant reform bill has just become law. Nick Wing of the Huffington Post reports:
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Thursday signed a bill into law scaling back a controversial practice that allows police in the state to permanently seize people’s cash and property without obtaining a conviction or even charging someone with a crime.
Not only does the law contain a conviction requirement — something that should greatly reduce the amount of abuse — but it closes a loophole law enforcement agencies love using to route around state-level restrictions.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, police departments in California will be largely prohibited from transferring seized property to federal agencies in order to sidestep state conviction requirements. The legislation forbids the transfer of property, like vehicles and homes, and specifically raises the threshold on cash seizures, requiring the government to obtain a conviction before permanently confiscating any amount under $40,000. (The previous cap was $25,000.) For larger cash seizures, authorities must provide “clear and convincing” evidence of a connection to criminal activity before taking the money for good.
These restrictions should create additional barriers against misuse. High-dollar seizures are the exception, not the rule. Law enforcement agencies don’t rake in cash from a few large busts a year. The greatest portion of this “income” derives from dozens or hundreds of smaller seizures. The lower dollar amounts ensure agencies will hold onto more money more often. The cost of challenging a seizure is often more than the amount seized — a fact many law enforcement officers are all too aware of.
Survey results from the Drug Police Alliance show civil asset forfeiture is fairly widespread, with around 10 percent of residents in a number of California counties reporting that they know someone who’s had property confiscated by police without being convicted of a crime. And forfeiture trends in California don’t appear to have changed much since 1992, when 94 percent of state forfeitures involved seizures of $5,000 or less. Adjusted to 1992 levels, the average value of a forfeiture in California in 2013 was just $5,145.
This law puts some due process back into the forfeiture system, preventing agencies from running a rigged game which pits the government against the property seized and doing everything it can to keep the rightful owner from raising objections.
Of course, law enforcement officials and representatives are already complaining that the bill will turn California into Mexico.
There’s also a broader belief that the new law will encourage the criminal element to do business in California.
“The fact is that when you’re dealing with transnational criminal enterprises, one of the crippling things that you can do is seize their assets out from under them,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotic Officers’ Association. “And that can be, in many cases, more efficacious than jailing a few members of that cartel.”
Except that years of drug warring and asset forfeiture haven’t done anything to reduce the flow of drugs into the country. This fact is conveniently overlooked every time law enforcement agencies try to defend taking a few thousand dollars from a motorist passing through the state. The agencies that benefit from forfeiture have almost no interest in securing convictions — a much longer, more expensive process that involves making more effort than claiming to smell marijuana before helping themselves to any cash they discover.
Agencies are also complaining about expected budget shortfalls, and without any seeming awareness that this is a mess of their own making. Effective budgets don’t allow for highly-speculative projections. Agencies have no way of knowing from year-to-year how much they can truly expect to obtain through asset forfeiture. But they pencil in amounts anyway, turning this amount into a goal to chase, rather than a possible surplus that should only be counted when — and if — it actually arrives.