This September, the notoriously liberal state of California just made it harder for cops to take cash from innocent people. Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law SB 443, which limits the amount of civil forfeiture that is allowed to take place in the state by police and law enforcement agencies.
Civil asset forfeiture occurs when the government (ie. police) literally seizes someone’s property, without compensating them, based on the suspicion that the property was used in connection with criminal activity. For example, you can be stopped during a routine traffic stop, and police who suspect you of drug dealing may take cash that was in your car based on that premise. They do not need a warrant or criminal conviction in order to do so.
It is well known that corrupt police agencies throughout California have been using civil asset forfeiture as an excuse to pad their budgets. An investigation by the Washington Post identified almost $10,000 in cash seizures that took place without any warrants or indictments.
The Lay of the Land
Compared to other states, California was already more protective than others. The state already required a criminal conviction before real estate, vehicles, boats and cash under the value of $25,000 could be forfeited over to the government. The standard of proof in the civil forfeiture proceeding has always been “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning the state had to establish clear and convincing evidence that the property was connected to illegal activity.
However, California’s state requirements are different from those under federal law. Under a federal forfeiture, state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies may collaborate (called “equitable sharing”) and forfeit seized property under federal law, even if that would preempt California’s more stringent protections for property owners. This means that traditionally, federal agency such as ICE or the DEA just has to get involved in order for the forfeiture to become federal. Once state departments transfer the seized assets to a federal agencies, they get back 80% of those proceeds.
SB 443 changed that. Starting in 2017, police will first need to obtain any criminal conviction before they could receive equitable-sharing payments from forfeited real estate, vehicles, boats, and cash worth under $40,000. This is intended to prohibit police departments from sidestepping the state conviction requirements by transferring the money to federal agencies. In addition, the law also increased the threshold for forfeiting cash with criminal conviction to $40,000. Continue reading