California Cops Undermine Asset Forfeiture Reform

Asset Forfeiture Raid

As a result of a concerted effort by law enforcement, the California Assembly last week voted down common-sense civil asset forfeiture reforms.

Senate Bill 443, by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, would have significantly reinforced the notion that property rights and constitutional rights still matter in this day and age. The bill, among other provisions, would have required a conviction before seizing someone’s assets, barring state and local law enforcement agencies from receiving revenue in cases involving joint efforts with federal law enforcement agencies until there is a conviction.

Though the bill cleared the Senate 38-1 in June, the proposal was rejected by the Assembly 44-24 with 12 abstentions. “Apparently, many of our elected representatives do not want to uphold the due-process protections guaranteed to us in the Constitution,” Lynne Lyman, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

The bill did not deny law enforcement the opportunity to use asset forfeiture, nor did it take away any ability to tackle street gangs or transnational criminal organizations. Yet that’s what law enforcement organizations like the California District Attorneys Association wanted legislators to think.

“California’s asset forfeiture law will be changed for the worse, and will cripple the ability of law enforcement to forfeit assets from drug dealers when arrest and incarceration is an incomplete strategy for combating drug trafficking,” the CDAA warned in a letter to Mitchell.

Such arguments were repeated on the Assembly floor by Assemblymen Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, and Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, a former cop.

“You would take away one of the most important tools to deal with those folks who are creating havoc and who are creating murders and other violent crimes in your own districts,” warned Alejo.

Upon defeat of the bill, Marc Debbaudt, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, declared, “Passage of the bill would have caused a severe public safety threat – it would have been a license to expand for drug cartels and narcotics trafficking on all levels, endangering our communities and schools.”

As is often the case, law enforcement’s tried-and-true method of stirring up fears over public safety served as cover for the real concern: money.

District attorneys and police chiefs reportedly made personal calls to legislators, warning them against the measure, and the assertion was widely circulated that SB443 would make California law enforcement ineligible to receive money from federal investigations. This was, at best, disingenuous and simply untrue. Waiting for a conviction before getting their money, however, apparently is too much for law enforcement.

Yet state lawmakers seemed to buy those claims after talking to their local district attorneys or police chiefs, including Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, who took to the Assembly floor in opposition.

“We have the opportunity today to restore a core principle of American justice,” argued Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Torrance, co-author of the bill. “And that is that no person’s property can be taken from him or her without due process of law, without a trial and a conviction.”

Unfortunately, most Assembly members and law enforcement put petty politics and greed before principle.

“What this really shows is that the law enforcement lobby puts their own organizational self-interest ahead of the public,” said retired Redondo Beach police lieutenant Diane Goldstein, board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Law enforcement is moving away from their mission from only enforcing the laws to making the laws.”

It certainly appears that way, though Californians, fortunately, are no longer buying all the claims of law enforcement anymore, as shown by the passage of Propositions 36 and 47, three-strikes reform and reduced penalties for nonviolent crimes, respectively. Hopefully, legislators will wise up soon.