Editorials

Finally, a chance to curb abuse of asset forfeiture laws

Stories abound of Californians being pulled over for minor traffic offenses only to have their vehicles towed away and cash taken.
Stories abound of Californians being pulled over for minor traffic offenses only to have their vehicles towed away and cash taken. Sacramento Bee file

Of all the wrongs meted out by the criminal justice system, few are more unfair to poor, mostly minority Americans than the way police abuse civil asset forfeiture laws.

Every year, cops seize and keep millions of dollars in cash and property from people who haven’t been charged with – or convicted of – a crime. They do it without warrants and use proceeds from the seized assets to pad depleted police department budgets.

Stories abound of Californians being pulled over for minor traffic offenses only to have their vehicles towed away and cash taken. Nationally, police take more property from Americans than burglars do, violating rights in the name of fighting crime.

Sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk is a chance to help right this wrong. All he has to do is sign Senate Bill 443

The bill, from Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, would require officers to get a conviction before keeping property they seize. The only exception – a compromise with law enforcement groups – is for cash in excess of $40,000. Doing anything else would make it harder to break up drug trafficking rings, police say. We’ll buy that.

This bill is a big step toward reforming a legitimate practice that began in the 1980s as a way for cops to cripple drug kingpins, but it has morphed into a convenient revenue stream – not unlike excessive fines and fees levied on the poor.

Researchers have found that some police departments actually budget for future revenue from forfeitures. Others don’t report the revenue to auditors or track the seized assets at all. This has led to number of states enacting reforms.

California’s property protection laws are better than many states’. Police can only keep about 60 percent of the revenue from the assets they seize in cases that are prosecuted locally.

The problem is a loophole that lets cases be prosecuted under federal law. Here, California has been particularly egregious. In the past decade, the number of cases transferred to federal control has tripled, allowing police to bypass the state’s stricter laws.

Plus, under the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which has its own issues, police can keep up to 80 percent of proceeds from seized assets in those cases – and a conviction isn’t required.

For people trying to get their property back, federal court is a big hurdle, even with an attorney, and so they often just give up. Mitchell’s bill addresses this, too, requiring a conviction before keeping seized assets for federal and state cases.

It’s not perfect, but it would be a measure of justice in an imperfect system.

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