U.S.: New Report Finds Extensive Forfeiture Abuses By California Law Enforcement
With Bipartisan Support in U.S. Congress and Buoyed By New Mexico’s First-of-Its-Kind Law That Ends Civil Forfeiture, Momentum Accelerates for Reform
The Drug Policy Alliance on Tuesday launched 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 (DPA). “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,” Ralston said.
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. 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 DPA. "In practice, this means encouraging law enforcement to engage in questionable and unethical practices under the banner of the war on drugs.”
For additional background on Asset Forfeiture, check out John Oliver’s fantastic "Last Week Tonight" 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.