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civil asset forfeiture

Senator Holly Mitchell, sponsor of SB 443: No More Policing for Profit, addresses the crowd in front of the Capitol

It's a topsy-turvy world when the best place you can go to understand an egregiously abusive police practice like civil asset forfeiture is a comedy show. I hope you watched John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight: Civil Forfeiture" episode that we embedded in Sharon's survey article this weekend. I’ll add it here for good measure.

Using biting humor, of course, but also facts and figures and film, the British comedian nails this absurd process of allowing police departments to seize property without convictions because some police officer happens to suspect a crime might be going on.

The required “preponderance of evidence” the officers in Oliver's examination rely upon can simply be that you're driving around with a couple thousand dollars in your car. That alone—absent any other evidence of wrongdoing and ignoring perfectly sensible reasons for carrying the cash—brands you a drug trafficker, allowing the officer to confiscate your bankroll.

Granted, several of the officers shown in Oliver's takedown were hardly the sharpest knives in the drawer—witness the Tennessee patrolman in the video questioning a Latino truck driver by asking,“Tenny mucho mucho Deniro in su trucky-trailer?”—but the way a widely used outrage like civil asset forfeiture undermines public trust in law enforcement is no laughing matter, especially when you understand that much or all of the assets seized stay with the police departments. Did I mention that the property's owner has not been convicted to any crime—and may not ever be convicted?

Should It Be Illegal?

In responding to our survey, many of you thought civil asset forfeiture should be illegal (68%), followed by those thinking it should not be enforced for misdemeanors (50%) or only enforced when someone is convicted of a crime (44%).

Summing up those sentiments, Kafkette said,“I sometimes wonder if people knew what is actually involved in asset forfeiture or drug addiction—or even drug-dealing—whether they would support anything to do with the War on Drugs.”

In America, the asset forfeiture blossomed during Prohibition—you know, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables breaking into Lucky Luciano's warehouses to bust open barrels of illicit hooch, confiscating all the trucks and tommy guns and cream-colored fedoras they could find.

Many fewer of you thought the process should fall under civilian oversight boards (29%) or that the funds should be used to benefit crime victims, not police agencies (29%).

Said Dusty:“I dislike civil asset forfeiture because it is an incentive to arrest and seize property with or without just cause because the arresting entity makes money off the whole procedure. If there is a seizure system the monies raised should not go to either victims of crime or the criminal justice system but into general funds to supplement tax revenues.”

How Did We Get Here?

Civil forfeiture got its start with British maritime law in the 1600s that required ships transporting goods to or from British ports to fly the Union Jack. If a ship owner failed to follow those laws, the British courts found it easier to seize the ship they had in hand than to track down the vessel's owner who might be anywhere in the world.

In America, the asset forfeiture scheme blossomed during Prohibition—you know, Eliot Ness and his Untouchable G-men breaking into Lucky Luciano's warehouses to bust open barrels of illicit hooch, confiscating all the trucks and tommy guns and cream-colored fedoras they could find. But when Congress repealed Prohibition’s Volstead Act, asset forfeiture went right back on the shelf, little used until the vaunted War on Drugs hit its stride several decades later.

And used it has been since we went down that dark alley. According to Wikipedia, "From 1985 to 1993, authorities confiscated $3 billion of cash and other property based on the federal Asset Forfeiture Program which included both civil and criminal forfeitures."

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A major turning point was the passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which allowed local and federal law enforcement agencies to divide up seized assets and cash. Since 2001, police agencies have carried out 61,998 cash seizures, “totaling more than $2.5 billion, $1.7 billion of which was kept by state and local authorities,” according to the ACLU and Senator Joel Anderson Host Panel on Asset Forfeiture Abuse at San Diego Law School

">Washington Post. In California during that period, there were 9,944 seizures for $430.8 million, with $296 million staying in law enforcement’s hands.

"They don't have to convict you. They don't even have to charge you with a crime. But they have your property."—Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde.

Law enforcement officials and their supporters in state legislatures justify these seizures because they say they believe these measures

  • Punish and deter crime
  • Enhance police cooperation at all levels of government
  • Provide much-needed revenue for law enforcement

But as John Oliver’s hilarious examination too soberly reveals, such a leaky process involving huge amounts of money is laughably open to corruption. And clearly, at least some law enforcement agencies have tailored their policing practices to generate more cash for their departments—so they can buy things like margarita machines, of all things. But in the process, they victimize often-innocent citizens with draconian and likely unconstitutional punishments that fall heaviest on low-income persons of color. No surprise there.

civil asset forfeiture

Supporting Holly Mitchell's bill

Will Holly Mitchell’s Bill Help?

California State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach) have coauthored SB 443: No More Policing for Profit, a bill requiring that a person first be convicted of a crime before his or her money or property can be permanently taken by the government.

In describing the need for SB 443, Senator Mitchell stated,“The law puts a ‘finders-keepers’ tag on certain possessions of those accused of crime, which doesn’t have to come off even when the accusation is dropped. Time for a new tag: ‘No conviction – No confiscation!’”

The ACLU of Southern California has made this bill a prime focus for this legislative session. SB 443 is currently pending on the Assembly floor, and is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles), the Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Institute for Justice.


Targeting the Poor: The Law & Your Money

Tuesday night’s ACLU SoCal Pasadena/Foothills forum will focus on these issues, bringing together a trio of young experts—ACLU lawyers Jess Rae Farris and Michael Kaufman, and A New Way of Life lawyer Theresa Zhen—in a discussion moderated by LA Progressive Publisher Sharon Kyle. Join us.

Dick Price, Editor
LA Progressive

civil asset forfeiture