Despite Bipartisan Support Civil Asset Forfeiture Law Soundly Defeated

Senator Mitchell speaks at Thursday's press conference
Senator Mitchell speaks at Thursday’s press conference – Source: twitter picture

SB 443 was a bill that was sponsored by Republican Assemblymember David Hadley, Senator Joel Anderson, and Democratic Senator Holly Mitchell. Under the current law, peace officers can seize cash and property from people they suspect of crimes. Currently a conviction is required to take assets worth less than $25,000, SB 443 would have mandated a conviction to take any property, regardless of amount.

“We have today the opportunity to restore a core principle of American justice, and that is that no person’s property can be taken from him or her without due process of law,” said Assemblyman David Hadley. But his colleagues disagreed, and under pressure from law enforcement groups, the Assembly rejected the bill by a 41-24 margin.

This is a rare time when the left and the right were in agreement. Conservative Jon Fleischman of the Flash Report tweeted yesterday, “Those who believe in the U.S. Constitution should cast an enthusiastic vote for #SB443 – Civil asset forfeiture reform. It’s a no-brainer.”

In August, Lance Lemmonds of the Conservative Daily Caller wrote, “The Conservative Case For Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform.” In it, he told the story of Mandrel Stuart who was pulled over in Virginia in 2012 for having tinted windows and a video playing in the back seat of his SUV.

He was handcuffed and detained for two hours. The police confiscated more than $17,000 “despite no evidence of his having broken any laws.” The prosecutors then offered to settle the case and return half of Mr. Stuart’s money.

“I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Mr. Stuart told The Washington Post, which reported on his case. “Why should I give them my money?”

He was lucky – he had the resources to fight back, he took them to court and won. The jury not only awarded him his money but forced the government to pay his lawyer’s fees.

However, he also lost, “Though ultimately victorious in his 14-month ordeal, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory: Stuart still lost his restaurant. Without the cash, he couldn’t pay the rent or bills and had to shut down Smoking Roosters.”

The Daily Caller notes, “As egregious as Stuart’s case was, it’s just one of many examples of government abuse of civil asset forfeiture across the nation where the law failed to uphold the most basic of American rights — the right to due process under the law.”

They add, “This case also illustrates the perverse law enforcement profit incentive, which allows a government entity to seize an individual’s property without ever charging him or her with a crime. Proceeds from the sale of the forfeited property and cash seized often go back to the police departments and prosecutors’ offices that took them. That’s nothing if not a flagrant conflict of interest.{

“This most vivid example of government overreach and unchecked power should be a wake-up call to conservatives to support policies that restore due process and overhaul a system that allows “innocent until proven guilty” to be turned on its head,” the article continues.

Currently, “more than three-quarters of the states and the federal government allow law enforcement to keep some or all of the proceeds from civil forfeitures. On the federal side, the federal government has seized more than $2.5 billion through 60,000 cash seizures since 2001, and more than 80 percent of those individuals were never charged with a crime.”

“Both law enforcement and government agencies claim that civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool needed to fight drug crimes and keep communities safe, and in this era of budget cutbacks for law enforcement, where agencies face personnel and resource shortfalls, it makes for a compelling argument,” they write.

However, “there are plenty of laws in place allowing the seizure of funds and property from real criminals and criminal enterprises proven guilty in a court of law to have been using the funds and property in the commission of criminal activity.”

This is a case where the left and right agree. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli writing for the ACLU two weeks ago noted, “Civil asset forfeiture laws were created in the heyday of the drug war in the 1980s. Originally intended to take booty away from drug “kingpins”, civil asset forfeiture has been perverted into an ongoing attack on low-income people and families who can’t afford to fight the government in court. Despite laws and guidelines intended to protect against it, civil asset forfeiture has become a relied-upon source of funding for law enforcement agencies all across the state. The fact that civil asset forfeiture has become a primary funding source for law enforcement has not only led to greater abuses, but also to an unhealthy and growing overreliance on it. “

Former Assemblymember Chuck Devore wrote in the Bee in August, calling it “the iron-clad law of unintended consequences struck.” He writes, “Over time, local law enforcement became increasingly dependent on seized assets to finance special equipment purchases and some really special purchases…”

He noted, “In 2000, California lawmakers voted to restrict the equitable sharing loophole, but then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the measure. Civil asset forfeiture has become particularly lucrative for some jurisdictions, with the Southern California cities of Pomona, Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills and South Gate acquiring more property than California’s largest cities.”

Steven Greenhut wrote in the San Diego Union Journal this week, “The justice system is supposed to be about, well, justice.”

However, “when police agencies use “civil asset forfeiture” to take private property, they are not allowed to build their budgets around such takings. The funds are supposed to support extra programs – not supplant current dollars. That’s so agencies don’t replace the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of cash.”

He argued, “Unfortunately, forfeiture has become a widely abused practice. Instead of targeting drug kingpins as intended, police sometimes target average citizens who haven’t been convicted or even accused of a crime. For instance, officials tried to take a $1.5 million Anaheim office building because one of the owners’ tenants was accused of illegally selling $37 in marijuana.”

What is particularly interesting is that in June, SB 443 passed the state Senate with only a single no vote. Ms. Dooley-Sammuli noted, “Only one Senator voted against the bill: the representative for Pomona, the city with the highest asset forfeiture rates in the state.”

However, even in August it was apparent that the Assembly vote would be a dogfight. Ms. Dooley-Sammuli wrote, “the bill must overcome immense pressure from law enforcement to survive in the Assembly.”

Chuck Devore wrote, “Unfortunately, a large roster of California law enforcement groups with a powerful presence in Sacramento have banded together to preserve the status quo that allows them to keep Californians’ cash without a criminal conviction. Law enforcement agencies say they need the money.”

He countered, “If so, the Legislature and local elected officials should prioritize spending for law enforcement.”

The law enforcement groups circulated alerts warning it would handicap their pursuit of “sophisticated and well-funded criminal enterprises.”

The tactics worked.

Even staunch liberals like Assemblymember Luis Alejo turned against the bill.

“If all of us are serious about people who are responsible for the most violent crimes – the drug trade, the organized crime – the most powerful way you can hit them where it truly hurts is law enforcement tools like these asset forfeitures,” said Assemblymember Alejo yesterday.

Senator Mitchell expressed disappointment at the “bullying advocacy tactics,” stating, “they have a sense of entitlement to assets that don’t belong to them.”

“There’s too much injustice that’s been carried out under the banner of the drug war, of getting the bad guys, which we all want to do,” Assemblymember Hadley said.

“The bottom line is we shouldn’t have law enforcement being paid on commission any more than we should have IRS agents paid on commission,” he added.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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7 thoughts on “Despite Bipartisan Support Civil Asset Forfeiture Law Soundly Defeated”

  1. Biddlin

    “…and under pressure from law enforcement groups, the Assembly rejected the bill by a 41-24 margin.”

    Should be a wake up call to the “Cops are our friends” zombies. We are their feeding trough. Time to derail the gravy train. I truly believe all US municipal and most other LEOs are so corrupt as to be unsalvageable.


    1. Davis Progressive

      it’s also a wake up call as to how powerful the cops unions continue to be.  they have killed most of the real reform efforts and this one that is bipartisan, the left and the right both agree and we still can’t get it through.

    2. Frankly

      For all government we are the feeding trough.  Ironically government generally votes to maintain the trough if not increase its size.

      You vote for big government, do you not?

  2. Anon

    He was lucky – he had the resources to fight back, he took them to court and won. The jury not only awarded him his money but forced the government to pay his lawyer’s fees.

    However, he also lost, “Though ultimately victorious in his 14-month ordeal, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory: Stuart still lost his restaurant. Without the cash, he couldn’t pay the rent or bills and had to shut down Smoking Roosters.””

    He should have sued for his loss of income from the closure of his restaurant, if he knew of it at the time the case was taken to court.

    As I have said before and as some experts have agreed, it is very likely seizure of assets merely on suspicion of criminal activity, where no crime is charged, is unconstitutional.  See:

  3. Napoleon Pig IV

    Ha ha ha! My well-fed porker friends at the pinnacle of porcine power continue to rule the barnyard as the good sky wizard intended all along. This flexing of the piggy muscle should put the mere sheep back to pasture, where they should feel blessed that they get to bow and scrape and turn over their worldly possessions to their superiors who so relentlessly carry out the divine will. Time for song and celebration! Only pigs invited. Oink!

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