Calif. Assembly Rejects Forfeiture Reform

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‘     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Proposed civil forfeiture legislation requiring California law enforcement to indict or convict suspected criminals before seizing their assets was overwhelmingly rejected Thursday by lawmakers.
     Senate Bill 443 sought to reign in laws allowing law enforcement to permanently seize cash and property of individuals suspected to be involved in illegal drug activities and using it to fund their departments. While the bill passed the Senate in June 38-1, it was turned down by the state assembly 24-44 in a bipartisan vote.
     Law enforcement groups vigorously opposed the bill, claiming it would take away measures that help fight gangs and drug distribution. Rep. Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, said he reluctantly voted against the bill after speaking with his district attorney about the negative impact it would have on police.
     “The problem with this bill, is in my mind, it goes too far and completely takes the tools away [from law enforcement],” Wagner said.
     Prior to Thursday”s vote, state law enforcement groups and lobbyists floated the idea that, if SB 443 was passed, California would be banished from the federal asset forfeiture program and that would cost agencies millions in funding.
     The theory was debunked before Thursday”s vote when a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed California would still be eligible for the department”s Equitable Sharing Program.
     Supporters of the bill pointed to statistics showing that, from a sample of 43,000 asset seizure records, 81 percent involved property seized by law enforcement without an indictment, with the property value totaling more than $2.5 billion.
     An August American Civil Liberties Union poll found that 76 percent of California voters agree that police should not be allowed to permanently seize property from people not convicted of a crime.
     “We have today the opportunity to restore a core principle of American justice, and that is that no person”s property can be taken from him or her without due process of law,” said Rep. David Hadley, R-Torrance.
     The bill was supported by a host of civil rights and drug policy groups, including the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance. The Drug Policy Alliance blasted lawmakers for not fighting for Californians” constitutional rights.
     “We are deeply disappointed, but not surprised, by the lack of courage shown by members of the assembly today,” said California Drug Policy Alliance director Lynne Lyman in a statement.
     Current civil asset forfeiture laws were created in the 80s in response to America”s drug war and were intended to stymie the resources of gangs and major drug dealers. Opponents claim it can be a difficult process for suspected offenders to regain their property, even if they are absolved of any wrongdoing.
     Law enforcement groups contend the bill would not only impact their relationship with federal law enforcement agencies, but deny them a critical source of revenue.
     Former Sacramento County Sheriff”s Department Captain Jim Cooper said law enforcement uses civil forfeiture to target drug dealers and fight the state”s notorious illegal marijuana industry.
     “How many folks carry around $25,000, $30,000, $40,000? Hardly anybody. Those folks are involved in the drug trade. It”s very lucrative,” said Cooper, D-Elk Grove.
     ACLU legislative advocate Mica Doctoroff said in a statement provided to Courthouse News that the organization is disappointed with the vote.
     “SB 443 upholds the fundamental constitutional principal that a person should not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process,” Doctoroff said. “It is profoundly disappointing to see legislators more concerned with bowing down to the aggressive tactics of the law enforcement lobby than upholding this principal and standing up for the rights of their constituents.”‘