The justice system is supposed to be about, well, justice. It’s why district attorneys are ethically obliged to pursue convictions only against people they believe to have committed the crime. They are not supposed to pursue convictions at all costs to bolster their careers.
Likewise, when police agencies use “civil asset forfeiture” to take private property, they are not allowed to build their budgets around such takings. The funds are supposed to support extra programs – not supplant current dollars. That’s so agencies don’t replace the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of cash.
Unfortunately, forfeiture has become a widely abused practice. Instead of targeting drug kingpins as intended, police often target average citizens who haven’t been convicted or even accused of a crime. For instance, officials tried to take a $1.5 million Anaheim office building because one of the owners’ tenants was accused of illegally selling $37 in marijuana. Reports show that more than 80 percent of targets haven’t even been indicted for anything.
There are many cases of police pulling over a driver and finding a large sum of cash – and they often keep the cash even if there’s no evidence it was tied to a crime. It’s clear why this happens. A recent report shows a number of Southern California cities rely on forfeiture cases to fund their budgets. If they can take it, they will. And to avoid California’s tougher restrictions on these takings, police partner with the feds and split the loot.
SB 443 was a bipartisan effort to rein in the abuses. Mainly, it would have required a conviction before police can take property. It also was designed to stop police from bringing in the feds to circumvent state law as well as make it easier for people to contest a taking. It tried to force police to use this fearsome tool as intended – to target criminal enterprises – rather than to grab the cars of people caught in a minor offense.
The bill was defeated on its final vote on Thursday after law-enforcement lobbies swarmed the Capitol. Police chiefs were calling legislators. Legislators from both parties went wobbly. That’s so – even though the bill already has been severely watered down to mainly require a conviction. At the last moment, some past supporters of reform started claiming it needed yet another amendment. California Republicans constantly blather about the Constitution, but only four GOP Assembly members backed this bill. And so much for Democratic concerns about police abuse.
Things got tough for supporters after the U.S. Department of Justice started interfering by telling law enforcement groups the legislation might endanger the “equitable sharing” funds California receives. “Should this legislation pass, the Treasury program would issue a notification… that the California state and local law-enforcement agencies are no longer eligible to participate in its sharing program,” wrote one Justice Department official.
The California District Attorneys Association had been battling asset-forfeiture reform. In its August 5 letter to bill co-sponsor Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, the association painted a dire picture. It predicted a nearly $24 million loss to the general fund and a $75 million loss to law-enforcement budgets.
That’s a similar line from a group of police organizations including the California Police Chiefs: “Passage of SB 443 will result in annual losses in excess of $80 million to California law-enforcement agencies.” The groups say it will take away a tool for fighting “transnational criminal organizations.”
“They say it’s taking away their ability to deal with drug kingpins,” said Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach police lieutenant and spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “It’s absolutely not true. They are acting like bullies.” She points to a recent public-opinion poll showing 76 percent of Californians are opposed to current asset-forfeiture standards.
Even police claims of financial loss were exaggerated. “This proposal does not violate the statutes or policies governing the Department of Justice Equitable Sharing Program,” wrote Alice Dery of the Justice Department’s asset-forfeiture unit, earlier this month. Dery, however,complained SB 443 “may be unworkable” because of some paperwork and deadline problems.
In other words, state and federal law-enforcement officials stopped this state bill that would protect people from oftentimes unfair takings of their property because they depend on the money and it’s too much of a hassle for police to make sure a targeted person has been convicted of a crime.
We should at least be honest. California police agencies and district attorneys don’t care about justice. They’re just about the money.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego.