New Asset Forfeiture Law Will Protect Property of Innocent Californians
In 2014, the owner of a janitorial company who paid her employees in cash was pulled over by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on Interstate 5. Officers found $18,000 in her car. She presented paperwork showing the cash was from her business, but she was told they didn’t believe her. Based on their suspicions, they seized her cash and car. She was never charged with a crime.
The practice of civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement authorities to seize private property without charging the owner with any crime. They take cars, homes and money. All there has to be is suspicion of wrongdoing. This invites a world of abuse and has left many innocent Americans unjustly harassed, their due-process rights ignored and property rights trampled upon.
In 2014, authorities nationwide seized $4.5 billion through civil asset forfeiture. That exceeded the total – $3.9 billion – stolen in burglaries that year. The practice grew, according to Armstrong Economics, almost 20 percent a year from 1989 to 2010, including a sharp increase of more than 50 percent from 2009 to 2010. It has become a popular way for law enforcement departments to increase their budgets.
The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, calls this “policing for profit.” It’s also been called “stop and seize.”
Some seizures are justifiable. Authorities should have the power to confiscate ill-gotten gains from convicted criminals. But government agents should not be allowed to take one’s property absent a crime. Our criminal justice system is based upon a presumption of innocence. Government officials must never ignore people’s rights in the pursuit of money.
One study found that 80 percent of asset seizures occur without criminal charges filed. If that’s a fact, it should be common for innocent victims to have their property returned, as the owner of the janitorial company did. But it took two years and legal fees — and she is one of the fortunate few. Once property has been seized, it’s usually gone forever.
“The average person who files a petition, they think all I have to do is explain this is clean money, it has nothing to do with drugs and I’ll get my money back,” says David Smith, a defense attorney specializing in asset forfeiture cases who once worked at the Justice Department.
But the process, he says, is “a charade at DEA and at Customs and Border Patrol.”
“They are just in the business of denying petitions,” he says.
Advocates paint a picture of law enforcement raids seizing drug lords’ mansions, yachts and planes. But in California, the average value of a seizure was $5,145 in 2013, according to reports from the Drug Policy Alliance – a hefty sum for a middle-class worker or a small business owner.
The Institute for Justice gives California a C+ for its asset forfeiture practices. But that’s a bit like saying a house burglar doesn’t look bad when compared to an international jewel thief. The only acceptable grade is an A+.
Policymakers have recognized the problem and are making an effort to correct it. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill to reform the state’s asset seizure laws. It prohibits law enforcement from seizing assets of less than $40,000 without a criminal conviction. Republican Assemblyman David Hadley, one of Senate Bill 443’s authors, says it will also “end the practice of agencies using federal jurisdiction … to seize the assets of those holding less than $40,000 in cash and retain those assets without a conviction.”
Law enforcement lobbyists argue the new law will cut into departments’ revenue, as they rely on seized assets to balance their budgets. But state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who wrote the law with Hadley, told the lobbyists that departments “shouldn’t be budgeting with money that wasn’t theirs, and when we had to cut the budgets for K-12, we didn’t start seizing kids’ lunch money.”
She’s right. The money isn’t theirs. And it’s not profit, either. It’s stolen.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow at the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.