Did you know police are allowed to seize and keep your cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even if you’re never convicted or even charged with a crime? It’s called civil asset forfeiture – and if it sounds like legalized burglary, that’s because it is.
In cities and small towns across the country – Baltimore jumps to mind at the moment – law enforcement has lost the trust of the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. And asset forfeiture is one the crucial and often-overlooked drivers of this dangerous breakdown.
Because seized assets often go straight into the coffers of the enforcement agency, asset forfeiture has led to a perversion of police priorities – such as increasing personnel on the forfeiture unit while reducing the number of officers on patrol and in investigation units – that jeopardizes public safety. While civil asset forfeiture was originally conceived as way to drain resources away from powerful criminal organizations, a new DPA report – Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California – shows how it has now become a relied-upon source of funding for law enforcement agencies all across the state.
This multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law. What emerges is a picture of a handful of relatively small cities clustered in Los Angeles County that lead the state in per capita seizures. Many of these cities were providing false or inconsistent reports to the Justice Department, while some other cities appeared to be engaged in budgeting future forfeiture revenue, despite this being explicitly illegal under federal law.
The revelations exposed in Above the Law add to major national momentum for reform. Earlier this month, New Mexico’s Republican Governor, Susana Martinez, signed a new law spearheaded by DPA that ends the practice of civil asset forfeiture in the state, which now has the strongest protections against wrongful asset seizures in the country. Just last week, the Montana legislature passed a more limited reform bill. And in both houses of the U.S. Congress, bipartisan legislation known as the FAIR Act has been introduced that would reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws.
Coinciding with the release of Above the Law, California State Senator Holly Mitchell introduced Senate Bill 443, co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU and the Institute for Justice, which would fix many of the worst practices described in the report.
Civil forfeiture is rooted in the drug war hysteria of the 1980s, and it has long been one of the more controversial aspects of the drug war. Back in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Forfeiture Reform Act, but this did little to stop the problem. In 2012, the federal government seized more than $4.7 billion in assets – a more than six-fold increase since 2001.
Civil forfeiture isn’t limited to wealthy individuals and seizures of ranches, yachts, and vehicles. In fact, the average value of a state seizure in California in 2013 was only $8,542. The low-income and immigrant families often targeted by police for asset forfeiture don’t have the financial resources needed to navigate state law and the long, complicated process to get their property back.
Most people agree that law enforcement professionals who put themselves at risk to protect the public need proper levels of funding. But stealing cash and property from potentially innocent people who are never even charged with a crime is an ass-backwards way to fund public safety.
Jag Davies is the director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance.