Keep Your Cash: Civil Asset Forfeiture Curtailed Under New California Law

Heading out to make a cash purchase? Heading to the bank to make deposit a from your food truck earnings? Heading home with your poker winnings?

The good news is that as of today, California law enforcement can no longer grab and keep your cash (if under $40,000); neither can they permanently take your property of any value, including cars, wedding rings and homes — unless they secure a conviction. If you didn’t know about this unjust law, one that essentially gave law enforcement free reign to take your stuff with almost no recourse, consider yourself lucky.

Civil asset forfeiture has allowed the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity even if the owner is never convicted of a crime. While civil asset forfeiture was resurrected (the law is a relic of British maritime laws allowing them to seize cargo and ships that didn’t pay unpopular taxes) in the 1980s as a way to target the resources of large criminal organizations, it has increasingly become a method for law enforcement to confiscate and profit from the savings and property of those not charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

All across the country, civil asset forfeiture has been perverted into an ongoing attack on families who can’t afford to fight the government in court, a burden that falls disproportionately on low-income people of color.

As one of many stories we collected for this campaign, we identified a taco truck owner who had $10,000 taken by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He wasn’t arrested or charged with a crime and a California judge ordered the return of his money. But his money had already been transferred to the feds so his lawyer told him it was just too expensive to fight the U.S. government. These kinds of gross constitutional violations occur every day.

In our 2015 report, “Above the Law,” we found that California law enforcement agencies received nearly $600 million from civil asset forfeitures under federal law from 2006 to 2013, while the average amount forfeited in California in 2013 was $8,542.50 – hardly drug kingpin money.

Thanks to the new law authored and passed by Democratic Senator Holly Mitchell and Republican Assemblyman David Hadley, policing for profit, as it is often called, will now be drastically curtailed in California. The law, Senate Bill 443 was cosponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and Institute for Justice, and was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 29, 2016 after two years of heated debate in the California State Legislature.

How this reform was achieved is also important. Diverse groups across the political spectrum came together to support SB 443, generating a groundswell of media and public support for reforming civil asset forfeiture. Nearly every newspaper in the state editorialized in favor. Thousands of petitions and calls were generated to law makers, faith delegations traveled to Sacramento to directly talk to politicians about the impact of this law on their communities.

And, in year two, after extensive negotiations with the law enforcement lobbyists representing district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs, these groups removed their opposition in exchange for a threshold ($40,000) that allowed them to pursue cases involving larger sums of cash under existing law and procedures.

There is an emerging bipartisan national consensus that asset forfeiture requires substantial reform. In 2016, at least 22 states introduced bills to limit civil asset forfeiture. Reforms have already been enacted in at least eight states (Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming).
As momentum builds for civil asset forfeiture reform nationwide, California’s passage of SB 443 offers other states a blueprint for workable solutions and reestablishes the most basic tenets of Constitutional law and values. So, now that we’ve entered the new year, let’s toast to keeping our cash.