California Lawmaker Revives Controversial Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill

A state senator tells BuzzFeed News she's bringing back a contentious bill aiming to reign in police seizures in California.

A California lawmaker told BuzzFeed News she is reviving a contentious bill — vehemently opposed by police — which aims to change state and local law enforcement’s ability to seize property from citizens before they are convicted of a crime.

State Senator Holly Mitchell, a Democrat, says she intends to bring it up for vote on the legislature’s floor before the end of the session this year

Senate Bill 443 bill aims to close a federal loophole that allows state and local law enforcement officials to pocket the proceeds and assets seized from a defendant — even if that person is only suspected of a crime. If passed, the bill would require that a defendant be convicted first before cash and property can be permanently seized.

Mitchell said that her office has taken the bill off the state legislature’s inactive file so that it can be amended. After that, she intends to put it up for a vote “well before” the August 31 deadline for it pass and be signed by the governor, or else run the risk of dying.

In 2015, despite a near 80% approval rating according to some polls, the bill lost 24-41 when it came up for a vote on the Assembly floor. However, California’s legislative process allowed for it to be placed in the inactive file, where it lingered until Monday when Mitchell’s office brought it back to life.

California’s state asset forfeiture law is currently one of the strictest in the country, requiring police to obtain a conviction before seizing a person’s assets. However, in cases where local police work on a joint task force with federal law enforcement authorities, they have the option to transfer a case to federal court — where a conviction is not required to seize property.

In those federal cases, a defendant’s property is divided up through what is known as equitable sharing. Originally introduced in the 1980s with the hopes that it would allow states to better coordinate with the feds to combat drugs, equitable sharing permits the federal government to take 20% of what is seized during a case. State and local agencies take the other 80%.

Supporters of the bill argue that this process incentivizes local law enforcement to transfer more cases to the federal system, leading to protracted legal battles for defendants to get back their stuff. A report by the Drug Policy Alliance, who are supporters of the bill, found that between 2005 and 2013, state forfeitures remained flat, but federal forfeitures more than tripled.

According to another report from the ACLU on the state’s forfeiture numbers, communities predominantly of color and poverty-stricken areas see a lopsided amount of asset seizures in California.

Their analysis found that 85% of the bounty from federal asset forfeiture in California goes to agencies that police communities that are majority people of color. Additionally, they found that counties with higher per capita seizure rates have an annual household income below the state median. They also found that the number of California law enforcement agencies utilizing federal civil asset forfeiture laws has increased from 200 to 232 in the last two years.

In 2015, former Attorney General Eric Holder moved to limit the equitable sharing program nationwide by barring local and state law enforcement to seize property under federal law without evidence of a crime. However, Holder left in place a few exceptions, most notably for joint task forces.

When the debate over SB 443 reignites this summer, police and prosecutors in California are likely to continue opposing it. Their main concern is that passing it would hurt their ability to target big drug cartels and hit those criminals where it hurts — their pockets.

Last year, law enforcement groups against to the bill claimed if SB 443 passed, it would cost them $80 million. A spokesperson for the California District Attorney’s Association told BuzzFeed News, “We remain opposed to the bill.”

Mitchell disagrees with the contention that law enforcement needs “all these tools in their toolbox” to combat major drug traffickers. She argues that data shows that hardened criminals from cartels are not the ones being most targeted by law enforcement. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the average value of a state seizure in 2013 was just over $5,000 in California. “That’s not the seizure of speed boats that we see on Miami Vice,” Mitchell said.

Despite their differences, Mitchell’s office has indicated that they intend to work with law enforcement when it comes to amending the bill in hopes of building consensus. Amendments under consideration include the ability for police to seize property if a defendant dies or flees the country to avoid trial.

Mitchell’s office also insists that once it is finalized, there will be nothing in the bill that prevents local law enforcement from coordinating with the feds through joint task forces.

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