FILE -In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 file photo, owner Russ Caswell stands outside his Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass. Caswell is fighting to keep the federal government from taking his motel under a law that allows for forfeiture of properties connected to crimes. The government does not claim that Caswell committed any crimes, but claims there is drug-dealing among the motel's guests. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File) — AP
SACRAMENTO — As local police agencies are stressed by rising pension and other costs, they increasingly have embraced this troubling policy: Using “civil asset forfeiture” to take as much private property as possible, even from people who have never been convicted or even charged with a crime. The more they take, the bigger their budgets.
This column reported on an Anaheim couple who owned a $1.5 million office building, which police tried to seize after an undercover cop bought $37 in marijuana from one of the building’s tenants, a medical-marijuana clinic.
That effort was dropped amid bad publicity, but takings are a routine occurrence under a law designed to put drug dealers out of business, but which has become a way for police and district attorneys to fund their programs. Senate Bill 443 by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, passed out of the public safety committee on Tuesday. It is designed to rein in these abuses. New Mexico recently passed some restrictions, also.
Under current law, police need only show an asset was involved in a crime to invoke the forfeiture statute. One columnist notes it’s so easy for agencies to take property under current standards that police have become picky – and sometimes target fancy cars they covet for their department.
Police take property for picayune violations, yet, according to a new report, aren’t always fastidious about following the law themselves. The Drug Policy Alliance “identifies numerous breaches of federal forfeiture rules, including budgeting future forfeiture revenue, failure to submit forfeiture expenses to third party auditors, unaccounted-for expenditures in documents submitted to the Justice Department, and failure to retain records related to asset seizures.” The report, cited at the hearing, also found some small cities have high seizure rates as they depend on the revenue.
Police in these and other communities routinely bring aboard federal agencies as part of their seizure operations. That subjects their actions to the low, “probable cause” standard in federal law. They have to split some loot with the feds, but the upside is they get to bypass California’s stricter standards.
The Anaheim situation and other high-dollar forfeitures have received media attention, but retired Redondo Beach Police Department Lt. Diane Goldstein told me most forfeitures are quietly targeted at poorer people. She talks about a food-truck owner who had $10,000 seized from him at a traffic stop. The money had nothing to do with drugs, but was for a property transaction.
The court ordered the sheriff’s department to return it, but it instead handed the money off to the federal government as part of an “equitable sharing” program, which took the matter out of the jurisdiction of the state court. Goldstein, who testified in the Senate on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said the truck owner didn’t have the resources for a federal court battle.
This is disgusting and, in the words of two former directors of the U.S. Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, “evil.” In a Washington Post column last year, they explained that forfeiture has corrupted law enforcement and government. It has led to “agents choosing whom to pursue based on irrelevant factors such as whether the target owed money on his car.”
Per the Senate analysis, SB 443 would require a criminal conviction before assets are taken, reduce the amount of money given to the agency, require that police meet the California standard before splitting up the booty with the feds, provide defense counsel for indigents, and award attorneys’ fees if a person wins in court.
All of the committee’s Democrats voted in favor of it on the committee. Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, voted no but told me, “I love everything about it but the allocation of funds.” He wants to toughen the bill with an amendment earmarking the money to the general fund because, “I hate the idea that we’re creating a bounty on citizens.”
The California District Attorneys Association and police unions argue against it because, well, they’ve come to rely on the money. But decisions about justice ought not to be based on profiteering. It’s about time to put some limits on this unjust practice.
By Steven Greenhut
April 22, 2015
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Forfeiture Bill Aims To Halt Profiteering