CA GOP eyes asset forfeiture reform

Asset forfeitureAfter sailing through the state Senate, a key criminal justice reform bill with bipartisan support faced its first test in the Assembly at a closely watched end-of-month hearing. “SB443 will continue to allow California law enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the money and assets they seize from police busts,” as Reason reported. “But it will require agencies to comply with the state’s asset forfeiture laws and forbid them from transferring the cases to the federal government.”

Republican realignment

The bill has enjoyed the effective sponsorship of state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles. But it has attracted bipartisan support, intensifying a nationwide shift among Republicans toward serious interest in recasting criminal justice issues around fiscal responsibility, devolved government power and a culture of mercy.

As Mitchell pointed out, U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., all put their names to a January letter warning the Justice Department that seizures under federal asset forfeiture law had become “overzealous” and oppressive. “We are concerned that these seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities,” they wrote.

For libertarians, the shift marked a welcome change of heart among Republicans in California and nationwide. FreedomWorks noted approvingly that at least one California Republican withdrew his opposition over the course of the bill’s journey through the state Senate.

“State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, who voted against SB443 in committee, rose in support when it reached the floor of the chamber. ‘This bill basically says that the government cannot seize the property of innocent people. Asset forfeiture is an important tool for law enforcement, and I strongly believe that the guilty should be subject to forfeiting their assets gained by illegal means,’ said Stone. ‘At the same time, however, the government should not be able to permanently seize property of people that are suspected of committing a crime. [T]his bill simply allows for innocent people to get their property back if they are not convicted of a criminal activity,’ he added.”

Horror stories

Although California has seen its share of asset forfeitures run amok, they rarely get traction on their own, so often happening out of the public eye. In late April, however, the Drug Policy Alliance helped fuel momentum for SB443 by releasing a Southland-centric report on the dark side of asset forfeiture in California.

In one anecdote, the Orange County Register reported, “retired Redondo Beach police Lt. Diane Goldstein described how a food truck owner had $10,000 in cash seized by police on the grounds that a drug dog detected narcotics on the money. While charges were never filed, and a judge ordered the money returned, the money had already been divvied up with the federal government, and the man didn’t have the financial resources to pursue the issue further.”

Deep roots

Thanks to their personal and political history, some longtime California Republicans have found themselves at the center of the broader debate on criminal justice reform. In the early 1990s, Patrick Nolan, onetime Republican leader in the Assembly, spent 33 months in prison for felony racketeering in the wake of the FBI’s 1988 Shrimpscam bribery sting. His experience there led to a decades-long effort to spearhead reforms targeting sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, drug policy, prison rape and recidivism rates, to name a few.

As the New Yorker recently recounted, Nolan’s labors have been instrumental in shifting the center of gravity among conservatives and libertarians toward a proactive stance on changing the way the U.S. approaches criminal justice. “When conservatives did venture into California, last November, to help pass Proposition 47,” the New Yorker observed, “the measure required that two-thirds of any money saved be funnelled into alternative correctional programs.” According to Nolan, “we know that just releasing prisoners or diverting them from prisons without services would increase crime.”

“Nolan has a wish list of additional reforms that he will pitch to conservatives. He would like to see abusive prosecutors lose their licenses. He would require the police to videotape interrogations from beginning to end, not just a confession that may have been improperly extracted.”

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