In a recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a startling 10 percent of adults living in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties said that they had had their property taken by a police officer without being convicted of a crime. Nearly one in five (19 percent) of those living in these three counties also stated that they know someone who had experienced the same.
Statewide, seven percent of Californians surveyed reported losing property to law enforcement without a conviction, and 17 percent said they knew someone who lost property to police. The higher numbers in the Los Angeles region is consistent with a report released last year that found very high rates of federal forfeitures takes in eight cities in Los Angeles County.
One of the ways in which law enforcement can legally take property or money from people in the absence of a conviction is through civil asset forfeiture, a highly controversial policy that allows law enforcement officers to seize cash or property that they suspect has been involved in criminal activity, such as drug sales. While California law offers greater protections, federal forfeiture laws do not require that police arrest or charge a person with a crime, or convict them. If the owner does not file a claim in civil court and prevail in the case, the property is permanently lost, and the majority of the funds go to the same law enforcement agency that seized the cash or property in the first place.
Last year the 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 revealed the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal laws. This report found that many agencies have been circumventing California laws in favor of the federal system, and that the federal system rewards those who exploit this loophole by returning 80% of the proceeds of each forfeiture - more than is allowed under California law.
"Civil asset forfeiture turns the bedrock of the American justice system--innocent until proven guilty-- on its head and these polls make it crystal clear that the public feels threatened." said Lynne Lyman, state director of Drug Policy Alliance, who commissioned the polls. "Civil asset forfeiture provides no protections for the innocent."
A 2015 investigation by The Washington Post reviewed almost 62,000 forfeitures from cash and property seized by law enforcement on highways and elsewhere in the U.S. In 80 percent of cases, there was no criminal conviction and more than half the seizures were for less than $8,800. In a subset of cases where they could identify the race of the person whose property was seized, the majority were Black, Latino or a member of another minority group. The researchers concluded that many people were simply too poor to sue the government for the return of their property.
"Immigrant communities and low-income people in general are the most vulnerable to all forms of police harassment and intimidation," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli. "The poll's findings are consistent with what we see throughout the country---low income people cannot afford to sue the federal government to get their cash back, and so they just have to let it go. It's nothing less than legalized theft and Californians are ready for reforms."
When asked if they thought that police should be able to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been convicted of a crime, 80 percent of respondents in the three Los Angeles-area counties disagreed. A statewide survey conducted simultaneously reinforced disapproval of this tactic, with 82 percent of Californians disapproving.
Last year, Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach) championed Senate Bill 443, to require a conviction in an underlying criminal case before state and local law enforcement could profit by permanently keeping someone's money or assets. The bill enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the State Senate, but police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys and their lobbyists prioritized stopping it on the Assembly Floor, claiming that the loss of revenue would limit their efforts to fight drug cartels.
At this time, the bill is still pending in the Assembly, and is expected to be amended later on this month, and brought up for a vote. If passed, it would return to the Senate for concurrence on the amendments, before being sent to Governor Brown for signature or veto.
For more information about the Public Policy Polling's findings, click here: www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/PPP_Memo_CADrug_5.16.16.pdf
For statewide results, click here: https://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/CAResults1.pdf
For Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino county results, click here: www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/LARiversideSanBernardinoResults1.pdf
SB 443 is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, CHIRLA-Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Institute for Justice.