Bipartisan support building to curb “policing for profit”

Asset forfeitureProponents of a measure to close a loophole that allows local law enforcement agencies to seize citizens’ property without a criminal conviction or even an arrest — a practice dubbed “policing for profit” — are moving behind the scenes to shore up support for the bill that died last September after a last-minute flurry of opposition from law enforcement.

The high-profile coalition of supporters — which spans the partisan divide with powerful advocacy groups and influential members of both parties — is aiming for a vote in the Assembly next week to block law enforcement from circumventing strict state law by partnering with the federal government in a program called “equitable sharing.”

On the right, Republican consultant Mike Madrid and Shawn Steel, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, are urging Republican support while California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton is working with Democrats. 

It’s uncommon for Madrid, who specializes in Latino issues, to weigh in so heavily on policy issues inside the Capitol. But, as he told CalWatchdog, Senate Bill 443 is a “no-brainer” because it upholds the core Republican values of “not preying on the poor” and the right to due process, and, politically, it could make inroads in minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the current civil asset forfeiture system.

“If you can’t do this, you don’t have a shot at expanding the base,” Madrid said of Republican lawmakers.

Madrid said Republican lawmakers who opposed the measure lacked a “political backbone” because they are “afraid of offending law enforcement,” which is a historically strong ally on the right. 

Madrid added that Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes has a “unique opportunity” to help the poor, which has been a central theme of the Yucca Valley Republican’s agenda since becoming leader in January.

A Mayes spokesperson on Monday told CalWatchdog he had not announced how he would proceed. Mayes voted against the measure in September.  

Those affected

A report issued this month by the ACLU of California showed 85 percent of proceeds from equitable sharing in California go to law enforcement agencies in communities with a majority of people of color.

The study also reported that the counties with higher per capita seizure rates have below average median household incomes and that the number of California law enforcement agencies participating in the equitable sharing program increased from 200 to 232 over the last two years.

Who cares? Isn’t it just drug dealers?

The program was designed to seize the assets of large criminal enterprises, toppling them in the process — which the law would still allow if SB443 were to pass. But as budgets were cut, law enforcement saw it as a viable revenue stream, and the claims of abuse started piling up.

One notable example was the attempted seizure of a $1.5 million building in Anaheim because the landlord rented space to a medical marijuana dispensary (which was legal in CA).

Another case involved Bob Alexander, who had $10,788 in cash that he was about to use to purchase a car for his daughter before the money was seized in Mendocino County because he had medical marijuana on him (along with the doctor’s recommendation for the marijuana, which was shown to police).

Alexander did get his money back eight months later. No charges were ever filed.

Current law

Current California law already bars the practice of seizing property without a conviction for assets valued at under $25,000, and requires “clear and convincing evidence” of a connection to a crime for assets exceeding $25,000 in value.

Law enforcement can get around that if the seizure is done in coordination with federal law enforcement and 20 percent of the proceeds are kicked up to the federal government. Yet there’s often not even an arrest because federal law doesn’t require it. Instead, there only needs to be suspicion that the property, not necessarily the person, is attached to some criminal activity.

People often get their property back after considerable time and frustration — but sometimes they don’t. So the bill, sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Asm. David Hadley, R-Torrance, would close that loophole and require a conviction for seizure of assets of any amount. Proponents like Mitchell and others say the practice often violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Support builds

It’s not just Republicans whose support is being whipped. A large share of Assembly Democrats either voted against the measure or just didn’t vote, after nearly unanimous support in the Senate.

Burton — who as a member of the Legislature decades ago and authored the bill that established much of the state’s relatively strict civil asset forfeiture laws—- has been reaching out to Democrats.

“I am especially disheartened and disappointed to learn that the state reforms that I and your predecessors worked so hard to put in place have been cast aside by California law enforcement agencies in favor of less protective federal laws,” Burton wrote last week in a letter to Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount. Rendon voted in favor of the bill in September.

However, Republicans are in a tighter squeeze than Democrats, wedged between law enforcement and limited government intrusion. But the right-leaning Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association gave lawmakers political cover on Monday when it issued a letter of support, pointing to the sharp increase in seizures from the federally-supported equitable sharing program.

“(T)here is also no denying the fact that law enforcement is largely to blame for the situation that SB443 aims to fix,” wrote David Wolfe, legislative director for HJTA. “Rather than use the federal law selectively, they have overplayed their hand.”

Law enforcement’s position

Opponents of the bill argue that law enforcement doesn’t police for profit, and asset seizure is a vital tool used to cripple criminal organizations, partially by funding costly investigations. The California District Attorneys Association claimed the bill would “deny every law enforcement agency in California direct receipt of any forfeited assets.”

“California’s asset forfeiture law will be changed for the worse, and it 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,” Sean Hoffman, CDAA’s director of legislation argued in a letter against SB443.

“Narcotics investigations are costly, and the California asset forfeiture law’s dedication of forfeiture proceeds to the seizing law enforcement agencies speaks to the serious resource needs involved when drug traffickers and their ill-gotten gains are pursued,” Hoffman added.

A CDAA spokesperson on Tuesday said the group was still opposed to the measure, but did not lobby against “inactive” bills, which SB443 is at the moment. 

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