Thanks to the efforts of Senator Holly Mitchell, California is taking steps to prevent the seizure of private property. Before a person’s cash, up to $40,000, seized by officers of the law during a criminal investigation can be permanently forfeited to the law agency or government, a conviction for a related crime will be required under a bill passed by California’s Assembly.
While federal law allows unlimited civil asset forfeiture of cash confiscated during the course of a criminal investigation without requiring conviction for an underlying crime, SB 443 will for the first time restrict California law agencies from sharing in the proceeds after assisting in a federal case in which less than $40,000 cash is seized.
“Police shouldn’t be able to ‘sweep and keep’ your private property simply by saying they suspect a crime connection,” said State Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). In California, between 2000 and 2013 696 million dollars’ worth of private assets were permanently seized by law enforcement through civil asset forfeiture. “This law won’t protect the drug lords that police say they’re after but will cut down on the number of folks in poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods subject to ‘confiscation without conviction’
California attempted to reform civil asset forfeiture in the 90’s, but local police agencies began partnering with federal law enforcement officials in a system called ‘equitable sharing,’ to take advantage of lax federal evidence laws. Federal agencies turn 80% of the proceeds over to the cooperating police agency. This has yielded 250% more in payouts to state and local agencies since 2000. An ACLU study found that most seized assets come from communities of color, often those who own the least assets.
In September, law enforcement entities swarmed the State Capitol, successfully lobbying against SB 443’s passage in the Assembly after it passed the Senate with little opposition, garnering bipartisan support and endorsements from many of the state’s dailies as well as Black Lives Matter, California’s Libertarian Party and Grover Norquist. Senator Mitchell met with fellow legislators to discuss concerns and amended the bill to set a $40,000 minimum for convictionless forfeitures, after which several major law enforcement associations withdrew their official opposition.
Co-sponsored by the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Institute for Justice, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A., the Assembly passed the measure, sending the bill back to the Senate for a final vote on the amended version before it heads to the Governor’s desk for signature.