This week, civil asset forfeiture reform legislation, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) won nearly unanimous approval in the California State Senate with a 38-1 vote.
Co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU and the Institute for Justice, SB 443 will require law enforcement agencies in the State of California to adhere to state laws regarding civil asset forfeiture, rather than transferring cases to federal prosecutors and courts where property rights and evidentiary standards are much lower.
SB 443 also calls for appointing counsel for indigent property owners and allows the recovery of attorney's fees for successful challenges. Additionally, the bill will protect guiltless spouses and family members from loss of property, and result in increased investment in the General Fund, in courts, and in public defense for the indigent, as well as funding for law enforcement and prosecutors.
"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. Today's vote is a tremendous step in the right direction."
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, these programs have been perverted into an ongoing attack on low-income individuals and families who are unable to afford to fight the federal government in civil court.
"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.
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, but this modest reform affects only "adoption" of state cases by federal agencies, a relatively small percentage. Furthermore, these executive actions are not permanent and could be reversed by the next administration. 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 April, Drug Policy Alliance released 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.
"SB 443 would reestablish the most basic tenets of Constitutional law and values," said Lyman. "This law simply requires that in most cases, a defendant must be convicted of an underlying crime before cash or property can be permanently seized."