New California law will limit police use of civil asset forfeiture

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Nationwide, calls for police reform and accountability are multi-faceted, with advocates calling for an end to practices like racial profiling and broken windows policing and a fundamental shift away from criminal justice systems built on policing for profit.

There are a number of ways that police departments can generate revenue. A system of fees and fines is one means; asset forfeiture is another. California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together to support a bill to rein in the practice and today Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. FSRN’s Lena Nozizwe reports from Los Angeles.

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After some two years of contentious wrangling – California legislators reached a consensus and overwhelmingly approved SB443. The bill limits how much in assets, law enforcement can seize from suspects without a conviction. It would also stop the practice of local or state law enforcement officials from transferring seized properties to federal agencies. Critics of civil asset forfeiture have called it policing for profit.

“I think it has been running amuck for a long time. Some of the legislation passed in California is meant to address that,” says criminal defense attorney and law professor Steve Cron. “It is a system that started with good intentions, but there have been so many abuses that it needs to be changed.”

Across the country, law enforcement officials use civil asset forfeiture to seize more than an estimated $1 billion of cash and property each year – often without charges or convictions. Authorities can simply say they suspect someone acquired money or possessions as a result of criminal activity, and then take it.

The practice gained popularity in the 1980s as a legal tool in the so-called war on drugs. Proponents say it fights crime by cutting into illegal profits, especially from the drug trade, with seized assets going to law enforcement budgets.

But critics say asset forfeiture is rife with abuse and based on the presumption that suspects are guilty. Past attempts at federal reform have led to minor changes, but now states are taking up the issue.

The California measure will prohibit seizures – without a conviction – of $40,000 or less. Up until now, the burden has been on the individual to prove that assets were not acquired illegally.

Supporters include the ACLU, United Farm Workers and the California Association of Black Lawyers. Law enforcement groups who initially opposed the measure are now neutral.

Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper cast one of only eight “no” votes. Cooper, a former captain with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department who also worked in asset forfeiture, says while restricting the seizures to $40,000 and less may not affect big time drug dealers, he argues small drug dealers are an even bigger scourge to his constituents.

“When you talk about small drug dealers, three or four or five-thousand dollars, whether you are hitting a small drug dealer or the big drug dealer, it’s all the same in the neighborhoods,” says Cooper. “Think about the calls you get. That’s the bottom line. No one is calling about the big guy, but the small guy, because they are ruining the quality of life. And that’s the big issue here. How do we deal with that?”

While the most-often stated targets of the forfeiture system are alleged drug dealers, they are not the only people who have had their cash and property caught up in the net of government seizures. Critics say that law-abiding citizens also carry thousands of dollars around in cash for legitimate business transactions like car purchases or payments of medical bills.

Opponents of civil asset forfeiture say the battle for nationwide reform will be a long one. While a handful of states like Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska have also made changes in civil asset forfeiture, many more have yet to do so.

On a federal level, both the House and Senate have bipartisan support for reform. And the Due Process Act, the most significant update to national law on the issue, has already made its way through the House Judiciary Committee.

[Editors note: This story was updated to reflect Gov. Brown’s signing of the bill into law.]

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