asset forfeiture marijuana arrest
Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Groundbreaking Report Finds Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses In California

asset forfeiture marijuana arrestToday, the Drug Policy Alliance launches Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California, a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California that reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law.

Civil asset forfeiture law allows the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even from citizens never charged with or convicted of a crime.  Because these assets often go straight into the coffers of the enforcement agency, these laws have led to a perversion of police priorities, such as increasing personnel on the forfeiture unit while reducing the number of officers on patrol and in investigation units. While civil asset forfeiture was originally conceived as an effective way to target and drain resources away from powerful criminal organizations, Above the Law discloses how these strategies and programs have now become a relied-upon source of funding for law enforcement agencies all across the state.

What emerges in the new report is a picture of a handful of relatively small cities clustered in Los Angeles County that lead the state in per capita seizures (Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills, Gardena, Irwindale, La Verne, Pomona, South Gate, Vernon and West Covina). The report’s analysis of fiscal records finds that many of these cities were providing false or inconsistent reports to the Justice Department, while some other cities appeared to be engaged in budgeting future forfeiture revenue, despite this being explicitly illegal under federal law.

“Civil asset seizure was never intended to be a primary funding source for law enforcement,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Law enforcement professionals who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public need appropriate levels of funding, but seizing the cash and property of potentially innocent citizens who are never charged with a crime is no way to fund public safety. This report is a wake-up call to all Californians.”

The revelations exposed in Above the Law add to major national momentum for reform.  Earlier this month, New Mexico’s Republican Governor, Susana Martinez,signed a new law that ends the practice of civil asset forfeiture in the state, which now has the strongest protections against wrongful asset seizures in the country. In January, Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes that could make it harder for state and local law enforcement to use federal law to seize property without evidence of a crime. And bipartisan legislation known as the FAIR Act has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would dramatically reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws.

In California, State Senator Holly Mitchell has just introduced Senate Bill 443, co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU and the Institute for Justice.

“When ordinary people don’t even have to be charged with a crime before having their assets permanently seized and added to police coffers, constitutional rights are at stake,” said Senator Holly Mitchell, who represents South Los Angeles.

Forfeiture as it exists today is rooted in the drug war excesses of the 1980s, and a substantial number of cases to this day are related to drugs. And it has long been one of the more controversial aspects of the drug war. Between 1996 and 2002, ten states and the federal government enacted asset forfeiture reforms, with DPA playing an instrumental role in several of these efforts, including ballot initiatives in Utah and Oregon that prevailed by 2-to-1 margins in 2000. That year, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, but this did little to stop the problem. In 2012, the federal government seized more than $4.7 billion in assets – a more than six-fold increase since 2001.

Civil forfeiture actions are not limited to wealthy individuals and seizures of ranches, yachts, and vehicles.  In fact, the average value of a state seizure in California in 2013 was only $8,542. Navigating state law can impose an insurmountable financial burden on low-income and immigrant families and others lacking sufficient resources to defend themselves against forfeiture actions.

“Asset forfeiture inflicts the harsh punishments associated with criminal proceedings without the constitutional protections guaranteed by a trial,” said Lynne Lyman, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “In practice, this means encouraging law enforcement to engage in questionable and unethical practices under the banner of the war on drugs.”

Join California State Senator Holly Mitchell, report author Jonah Engle, DPA’s Theshia Naidoo, and 21-year law enforcement veteran Diane Goldstein tomorrow at9am (Pacific) / Noon (Eastern) to learn more:

WHAT:  Press Teleconference: Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California

WHEN:  Tuesday, April 21: 9am (Pacific) / Noon (Eastern)

HOW:  Call Tony Newman for call-in info – 646-335-5384

WHO:

  • Holly Mitchell, California State Senator and author of SB 443
  • Jonah Engle, Investigative journalist and author of Above the Law
  • Theshia Naidoo, Senior Staff Attorney, Drug Policy Alliance
  • Diane Goldstein, 21-year law enforcement veteran, executive board member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)

For additional background on Asset Forfeiture, check out John Oliver’s fantastic segment last Fall (viewed more than 5 million times), Sarah Stillman’s 2013 New Yorker article, and the Institute for Justice’s 2010 report Policing for Profit.

Source: Drug Policy Alliancemake a donation

  • AJ

    “In fact, the average value of a state seizure in California in 2013 was only $8,542”

    That number being that low is a BIG problem. For every 100k car that they have taken they’ve had to have taken millions of items that cost less than a grand. Think about that.

  • The Police State has come to Republicans. And they are none too happy about it.

    http://reason.com/blog/2015/04/20/inside-the-raids-and-investigations-that

    But they don’t yet connect it with their support for Prohibition. The don’t get history:

    “First they came for…”

    • Denny

      Democrats totally control California and look what’s been going on out there for years.
      Politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, are always all about the money!

  • AAMCO

    Finally we are stopping this nation wide.

  • Bob Mylow

    A friend of mine lost $1200.00 to a traffic stop going to a storage locker auction. The policy at the auction is cash or cashier check. He was stopped for speeding 68 in a 65 zone. The officer asked if he had any large amounts of cash and permission to search the vehicle. He said yes on the money and yes they could search .They did they found nothing then they took the cash. He now only carries cashier checks. He said lesson learned. Possessions have no right’s an officer can seize anything they deem as possible drug money. He talked to a lawyer wasn’t worth fighting even if he won they still keep 10%.

  • 2buds4me

    This is what the Nazi’s did to the Jews!

    • Nathaniel

      Potheads are the modern day Jews of America?

      • 2buds4me

        I think it has a nice ring to it. Fits the “turn in your neighbor, turn in your parents” attitude so pervasive in our society.

  • HellNo

    What ever you do, don’t drive across Lousiana with cash, or a nice car with no liens on it. Those cops will take it all.

  • Nathaniel

    Incentivizing arrests and seizure is bound to go awry. How anyone did not see this coming is beyond me.