The California Assembly put a stop to legislation last Thursday that would have fixed a worrying loophole in the state’s laws on civil asset forfeiture. The legislation, called SB 443, would have prevented California cops from taking advantage of and profiting from the federal government’s awful forfeiture laws.
California’s forfeiture laws require “clear and convincing” evidence. Federal forfeiture laws, on the other hand, require a low standard of evidence. Even worse, the burden of proof shifts from the government to the individual.
It was perhaps thanks to this loophole that California’s forfeitures laws earned only a C+ from FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group typically associated with the Tea Party Movement.
Under current laws, any California law enforcement agencies partnered with federal agencies can – by transferring seized property to the federal government – take, sell, and profit from that property without charging or convicting the property owner. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows law enforcement to pocket 80% of the profit.
It was Democratic Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles who proposed SB 443, the bill that would have protected innocent homeowners by destroying the monetary motive that encourages forfeiture law abuse.
Speaking of abuse, federal forfeiture laws allowed California law enforcement to take $384 million from property owners between the years 2009 and 2013. Compare this to the $116 million they obtained from state laws. According to the Institute for Justice, California took home “nearly 20% of all Department of Justice Equitable Sharing payments.”
SB 443, which breezed through the California Senate in June, would have required a criminal conviction before any money was handed over to law enforcement – therefore addressing the lack of due process and erasing the profit motive.
I guess the federal government didn’t like the smell of state sovereignty, because both the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice threated to kick California law enforcement agencies out of the Equitable Sharing Program if the bill was passed. Officers then used this federal bullying as a strategy to keep the bill from passing.
The Department of Justice sort of took back its threat just before voting time. According to a BuzzFeed reporter, “The latest proposal does not violate the statutes or policies governing the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, and California agencies would not be deemed ineligible as a result of the provisions, if enacted. However, the provisions as drafted may make it impractical for California agencies to participate because of data-tracking and timing issues.”
Unfortunately, the California Assembly gave in to bullying and misinformation and defeated the legislation with a vote of 24 to 41. In less corrupt states, like Michigan, law enforcement officers actually support forfeiture law reform.
According to a recent Tulchin Research survey, 76% of California residents oppose any law that allows cops “to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been convicted of a crime.” Assembly members who voted to block SB 443 have a lot of explaining to do.