OC Register: Asset seizures too easy, profitable for police
Law enforcement agencies have become increasingly reliant on the seizure of assets and property to finance their operations, regardless of the justification.
The Drug Policy Alliance released a report last week on asset forfeiture abuse in California. The report highlighted a handful of cities in Los Angeles County that lead the state in asset seizures per capita: Vernon, Irwindale, Beverly Hills, La Verne, South Gate, Pomona, Baldwin Park, Gardena and West Covina. Combined, the nine police departments made $43 million from asset forfeitures during fiscal years 2006-13.
According to the report, it isn’t clear how many seizures were associated with a criminal conviction, though it is known that up to 80 percent of owners who lose property aren’t even charged. Further, the report notes that “between 2005 and 2013, California law enforcement agencies’ revenue from state forfeitures remained flat while their revenue from federal forfeitures more than tripled.”
That’s because state law allows local police to keep only 65 percent of the revenue they seize and requires a conviction for seizures worth less than $25,000. Federal law, in contrast, does not require a conviction for assets to be seized, and, until this year, agencies were able to keep up to 80 percent of what they grabbed so long as they partnered with the federal government.
In a teleconference accompanying the report, retired Redondo Beach police Lt. Diane Goldstein described how a food truck owner had $10,000 in cash seized by police on the grounds that a drug dog detected narcotics on the money.
While charges were never filed, and a judge ordered the money returned, the money had already been divvied up with the federal government, and the man didn’t have the financial resources to pursue the issue further.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, has authored Senate Bill 443, which would require, among other things, a criminal conviction before any assets are seized, require local agencies to abide by state standards before splitting money with the feds and improved due process for people caught up in forfeiture proceedings.
Such a reform would significantly enhance civil liberties in California and curb unjustified asset forfeiture.