People not convicted of a crime would be shielded from having some assets seized by law enforcement under a bill that passed the California Assembly on Thursday.
Under a process known as asset forfeiture, law enforcement can confiscate property from people who are suspected - but not yet found guilty - of crimes. Law enforcement defends the practice as a way to undermine large illicit organizations like drug trafficking rings.
But civil libertarians warn the practice amounts to an abuse of due process, depriving people of their constitutional right to a hearing. They argue that since police departments can claim seized property the practice offers an incentive to pad budgets at the expense of presuming innocence.
Last year, some Republicans joined with Democrats in supporting a bill to curb the tactic, but the bill wilted under the heat of law enforcement opposition. Amendments taken since then have removes some of that pushback, dissolving the opposition of politically influential groups representing police officers, sheriffs and district attorneys. The California Narcotic Officers Association remains opposed.
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The scaled-back Senate Bill 443 would now bar seizing less than $40,000 worth of cash if the owner hasn’t been convicted of anything. The same prohibition would apply to state and local agencies claiming some of the proceeds from joint law enforcement actions in which they collaborate with the federal government.
Legislators approved the measure on a bipartisan 66-8 vote, a reversal of last year’s result. Several members praised the bill for striking a balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting due process rights.
“When you do have those clashes, you can find a middle ground, you can find a way to protect liberties, you can find a way to keep these tools in the hands of law enforcement, and you can do it with a bill that deserves unanimous support on this floor,” said Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine.
It still drew some criticism. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who spent decades in law enforcement, including in narcotics, said he opposed the bill because it would make it more difficult to go after smaller traffickers.
“The small drug dealer has a more a severe impact on a community, immediate impact, than the large drug trafficker does,” Cooper said. “The bottom line is they all have money, and you hit ‘em where you can, that’s what it comes down to.”