California is on the verge of fixing abusive civil asset forfeiture laws in the state. Yesterday, California Assembly Committee passed Senate Bill 443 unanimously (7-0) after passing the State Senate (38-1). The new bill has the potential to improve California’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which currently have a D in the Institute for Justice’s Scorecard, and a C+ in Freedomworks’s.
SB 443 will place much needed restrictions on law enforcement. Right now, law enforcement agencies need ‘clear and convincing evidence’ in order to seize property. The bill will alter that by requiring a criminal conviction for forfeiture to take place. The San Diego Union Tribune explains that the new law would impose “a steeper burden of proof so that agencies are less apt to view law-abiding citizens as cash cows”.
In addition, the bill provides forfeiture victims the right to a fair hearing to reclaim their lost property. If exonerated, victims will be entitled to attorneys’ fees and litigation costs compensation.
This legislation addresses the “equitable sharing program” that local law enforcement agencies can use to circumvent state laws. SB 443 will prevent federal-state collusion and will bar transfers of seized property to the federal government. This particular provision of the bill takes away the ‘profit incentive’ that current civil asset forfeiture laws provide for law enforcement agencies. State officials can still claim 80% of the proceeds when they hand them over to the federal government. In 2012 alone, federal, state and local law enforcement snatched approximately $4.2 billion in seized assets. The main opponent of SB 443, the California Association of Police Chiefs complained that the bill would “significantly reduce distribution amounts to local law enforcement.” It is clear that this police profiteering must be stopped.
Russ Caswell was one victim of the draconian civil asset forfeiture laws in the state. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in conjunction with local police seized his family-owned motel because of a handful of drug-related arrests of some motel guests. Although, Mr. Caswell had always cooperated with the authorities and was unaware of the illegal activity, local police still seized his hotel. Mr. Caswell was never convicted of a crime, but the $2 million property was too irresistible to be left alone.
Assemblyman David Hadley (R-Torrance) and Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) have taken on the crucial job of leading the charge for reforming civil asset forfeiture. The bill’s proponents feel that it is essential to uphold “a core American principle of justice that you can’t have your life, liberty or property taken away from you without due process of law.”
Americans for Tax Reform is urging California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign SB 443 into law and elevate California’s civil asset forfeiture laws on par with other states leading reforms such as New Mexico and Montana.