Imagine you are a small business owner. It’s the end of the day and you have your cash earnings in your car. You are on your way to deposit the money in your bank account. Several large orders came in and you’re thrilled to have several thousand dollars to deposit. On your way to the bank you are pulled over by local law enforcement. They claim you fit the profile of someone they’ve gotten a tip on. They see the cash and tell you they believe you have been selling drugs and that the cash represents your drug-dealing profits. You protest. You have no drugs in your car so surely they are mistaken. Surely your property will be returned to you. Right?
After reviewing countless stories of innocent people who have had their legal property seized by law enforcement, I introduced Senate Bill 443. SB 443 mandates that a person be convicted of a crime before their property can be permanently forfeited. While California attempted to reform civil asset forfeiture in the 90’s, local law enforcement began partnering with federal law enforcement officials in a system called “equitable sharing,” to take advantage of the lax evidentiary laws at the federal level. This has proven a profitable way for California law enforcement to circumvent our state law. This has resulted in payouts to state and local agencies that have increased nearly 250% over a 12-year period. By 2014 federal records showed that more property was permanently taken from owners by civil asset forfeiture than by burglary. In California, between 2000 and 2013 696 million dollars worth of private assets were forfeited to law enforcement by this means.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial process which allows law enforcement officers to seize and keep assets that they suspect have been involved in criminal activity. Because civil asset forfeiture proceedings target the property itself with involvement in a crime, the normal protections to which a suspect is entitled under criminal law do not apply. While a person needs to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to be convicted of a crime, seized property needs only to be suspected of a crime in order to be permanently forfeited to the accusing state agency. This means that police can take and keep your money, car, or other valuables without ever having to charge you with a crime!
Unsurprisingly, there is ample evidence that this “tool” of law enforcement has not been applied evenly. A recent report conducted by the ACLU finds that most seized assets come from communities of color. Often those who can least afford it are most targeted by law enforcement for these types of seizures. While law enforcement vigorously defends the need to preserve civil asset forfeiture to disrupt organized crime, evidence is mounting that it is being abused. Indeed during lean budget years while rates of arrest for violent crimes went down, seizures under civil asset forfeiture increased. This should be troubling for all of us.
One would think that curbing this practice, which fosters distrust between police and the communities they serve, would be a top priority to law makers — especially those who represent the communities most vulnerable to this kind of abuse. A recent poll finds that nearly 80% of Californians across party and ethnic lines approve of the reforms contained in SB 443. And yet, local law enforcement entities have continued to swarm the State Capitol and apply heavy pressure on law makers to leave this cash-cow for the milking.
We must pass this critical reform to protect Californians from the unethical practice of seizing property from innocent people. And law makers must be reminded that their most pressing responsibility is protecting the constituencies that elected them into office, not the special interests that directly profit on the backs of innocent citizens.