Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California is expected to sign a bill that would limit California law enforcement agencies' ability to seize assets without charging an individual with a crime. The move is the latest in civil asset forfeiture reforms spreading across the country.
In August, the California Senate passed a bill known as SB 443 by a vote of 39 to 1. The legislation is designed to close a federal loophole used by state law enforcement to seize assets of suspects even if they are not charged with a crime, the Compton Herald reports.
Civil asset forfeiture laws cropped up across the U.S. during the peak of the War on Drugs, intended to allow law enforcement to seize ill-gotten assets suspected to have been earned through drug dealing. Law enforcement could seize cash, property or even real estate based only on the suspicion that it had been acquired through drug dealing, according to the ACLU.
The laws have resulted in numerous complaints across the U.S. from individuals having their cash or property seized by law enforcement even when they are not guilty of a crime.
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For example, in 2015, Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies seized $18,000 from a California resident during a routine traffic stop. The cash was to pay her employees, and the money was never returned.
Civil asset forfeiture has resulted in many law enforcement officers being accused of policing for profit, with a Drug Policy Alliance report finding that several California agencies relied heavily on seizing cash from suspects to fund their departments, The Huffington Post reports.
The report found that law enforcement in several small towns in California was actually projecting their budget based on how much revenue they could raise through future assets forfeitures.
Basically, they were placing a quota on how much cash they could seize from suspects, regardless of whether or not they would be charged with a crime.
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In 2013, the average amount of money seized by California law enforcement using civil forfeiture laws was only $8,542. The majority of individuals who have had their assets taken were low-income, people of color, and those living in immigrant communities.
California state law already places several personal property protections, but state and local police are still able to seize assets using federal law. Through a program known as equitable sharing, local law enforcement is allowed to keep 80 percent of assets seized regardless of whether or not an individual is convicted of a crime.
From 2000 to 2013, an estimated $696 million in California residents’ private assets have been taken and never returned by law enforcement.
SB 443 would ban state law enforcement from seizing assets that amount to less than $40,000. The legislation takes into account law enforcement’s assertion that amounts above $40,000 are more often than not related to drug crimes.
The bill was introduced by Democratic state Sen. Holly J. Mitchell of California.
“Why should private property be forfeited to the police agency which confiscated it when no conviction has shown any connection to a crime?” Mitchell said. “Innocent until proven guilty is the law of the land.”