ACLU Report: Asset Forfeiture Takes Wealth from Communities of Color

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Senator Holly Mitchell, sponsor of SB 443, addresses the crowd in front of the Capitol in April
Senator Holly Mitchell, sponsor of SB 443, addresses the crowd in front of the Capitol in April

By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Did you know that in 2014 police took more property from people in the U.S. than burglars did? Frightening, but absolutely legal.

Police are allowed to take your money and property even if you aren’t convicted of a crime, or arrested. California law enforcement agencies use federal civil asset forfeiture laws to plump up their budgets and unfairly target Californians.

A report we released today finds that, although this tactic of policing for profit can impact innocent people from all walks of life, people of color and those who can’t afford to fight the government in court are the ones who bear the heaviest burden.

The report found that:

  • The vast majority (85%) of the proceeds of federal asset forfeiture in California goes to agencies that police communities that are majority people of color;
  • Half of DEA seizures from California involved people with Latino surnames;
  • Counties with higher per capita seizure rates have an annual household income below the state median; and
  • The number of California law enforcement agencies taking advantage of federal civil asset forfeiture laws has increased from 200 to 232 in just the last two years.

Download the report.

Established in the heyday of the war on drugs—a.k.a. the war on low-income people of color—asset forfeiture laws were supposed to target drug “kingpins” by confiscating their cash and property. Instead, these laws, which allow law enforcement to keep a portion of what they take, have been abused by those who have a financial incentive to take Californians’ money and property even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

Policing for profit leaves Californians empty-handed and unable to get their hard-earned money or property back. For example, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department confiscated $10,000 from a taco truck owner even though there was no evidence of a crime and the driver was not arrested or charged. A California judge ordered the money returned, but by then the money had already been transferred to federal jurisdiction. At that point, he was advised by his attorney to drop the case because fighting the U.S. Government is too expensive and has been known to morph from asset forfeiture into deportation of relatives or IRS involvement.

Fortunately, our state legislature has the opportunity to pass a bill that would forbid cops from permanently keeping someone’s money or property unless that person was convicted of a crime. SB 443, introduced by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and co-authored by Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach), would protect innocent Californians. The bill promotes a simple concept: if someone isn’t convicted of a crime, the government can’t take and keep their money or property.

Legislators are wavering in the face of the law enforcement lobby, which swarmed the state Capitol to make sure money would keep flowing from the pockets of hardworking Californians. The bill is still pending in the California Assembly and will likely be called up for a vote later this month.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is the Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director with the ACLU of California.

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19 thoughts on “ACLU Report: Asset Forfeiture Takes Wealth from Communities of Color”

  1. Tia Will

    I am early awaiting the outpouring of outrage from those who feel that taxation via the vote of those who will be taxed themselves is somehow “spending other people’s money” but to the best of my knowledge have not raised this state sponsored robbery as an issue.

      1. David Greenwald

        Don’t some conservatives consider taxes government theft? Some conservatives consider forfeiture government theft too. Here’s an article on Rand Paul’s efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture.

      2. Tia Will

        BP

        I don’t understand your response. A basic precept of our judicial system is “innocent until proven guilty”. So how, in your eyes, is civil forfeiture anything other than state sponsored robbery from an innocent individual if there is no conviction ?

          1. David Greenwald

            The objection to taxation and the objection to civil asset forfeiture are rooted in similar foundations. Read the Rand article I posted in my other comment.

        1. Barack Palin

          Boy, that’s a stretch.  But it’s your blog, if you want to talk about people voting for taxing other people when they have no skin in the game we can all go there.

          I happen to agree that property shouldn’t be taken from anyone before there’s any due process which is what I thought this article was about.

        2. hpierce

          You miss the point of David’s headline and the report (by the ACLU)… it’s not about forfeiture… it’s about the contention (and there is indeed a possible link) that it is unevenly applied due to race and/or economic status.  Am guessing that if the forfeiture only applied to white males, the issue wouldn’t have even surfaced. At least not here.

  2. skeptical

    It is NOT civil, it is NOT forfeiture.  It is theft.  What is described is wrong because it is theft, not because the victims are “people of color.”

    This has absolutely nothing to do with taxation.  However, it is a good example of why we need a justice system.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      skeptical,

      I agree. Raising taxation was a red herring. This is nothing more or less than government sanctioned criminal activity and has nothing to do with taxes, race, poverty or anything else except pure greed, power lust, and corruption.

      Of course, what they like to call “civil forfeiture” affects people of color more than white males, but that is also because of the failed “war on drugs” and the deliberate perpetuation of the the very profitable black markets (along with payoffs and civil forfeiture loot) made possible by that “war on drugs.”

      Until the concept and practice of “civil forfeiture” is erased from our laws, police departments, and courts, we will have no “justice system,” just a fake semblance of one no fundamentally superior to any of the various corrupt “justice” systems around the world.

      At least we still have the Second Amendment! Oink!!

  3. Jerry Waszczuk

    “A California judge ordered the money returned, but by then the money had already been transferred to federal jurisdiction. At that point, he was advised by his attorney to drop the case because fighting the U.S. Government is too expensive and has been known to morph from asset forfeiture into deportation of relatives or IRS involvement.”

    The above statement sounds unreal or the  Taco-truck owner lived illegally in USA and  apparently he  was afraid of Napolitano’s forces  which could cause him deportation.

    A few years back the  IRS audited my tax return and took from me $ 6 K .  I appealed the  IRS action and without an attorney  I was able to get my money back after one year  heavy ” barrage” of arguments .

  4. nameless

    Good grief!  Asset forfeiture is the taking of property without just compensation based on the idea the police THINK someone committed a crime (altho sometimes I wonder if they even believe it).  Where is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty?  Race is hardly the issue.

    1. David Greenwald

      Race compounds the issue, which I agree is a problem whether evenly applied or not, but being disproportionately applied and affecting disadvantaged people adds to the problem.

      1. South of Davis

        David wrote:

        > Race compounds the issue, which I agree is a

        > problem whether evenly applied or not

        It is sad that we are even bringing race in to this since like police shootings the cops not only shoot more white people every year they also STEAL more money (and property) every year (calling it “Asset Forfeiture”) from white people.

        The problem is that “government theft” has the support of BOTH of large numbers the right and left (just like Illegal immigration). Most Fox News watching low IQ right wingers don’t see a problem with stealing from black gang members (to pay for more MRAPs) and the bulk of the low IQ left don’t care if the IRS cleans out the bank accounts of white business men (to pay for more Obamaphones).

        As the government keeps ignoring more and more laws I’m hoping that BOTH people on the right and left will come together to either enforce laws or change them.  It should be either legal or illegal for cops to steal stuff, not OK to steal if the cop (or IRS or Government) “thinks” someone might be guilty

  5. Jerry Waszczuk

    “Legislators are wavering in the face of the law enforcement lobby, which swarmed the state Capitol to make sure money would keep flowing from the pockets of hardworking Californians. ”

    It does not sound right .

    The  whole “Margaret Dooley-Sammuli article reminds me  the communist Poland and  the nation wide communist  newspaper ‘Trybuna Ludu” or “People’s Voice”  with slogans and propaganda type ” America again beat blacks” .

     

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      Unfortunately, unlike much of what Trybuna Ludu published, this article by Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is simply factual. The problem is that too many people are ignorant (or ignoring). When any government becomes abusive and corrupt, many of the front-line minions of said government eventually pay a heavy price for their willingness to follow immoral orders in furtherance of the enrichment of scum.

      Both ordinary citizens and those who are employed as minions must put an end to the corruption and the propagation of laws aiding and abetting corruption before there can be true peace. Until then, the old advice to “keep your powder dry” is quite appropriate.

        1. Napoleon Pig IV

          By definition, any government that seizes assets from its citizens before convicting them of a crime (other than through lawful taxes) is corrupt. Corruption is the heart of the problem, and pretending it is not will not make the problem disappear.

          The ACLU writes facts – which are unwelcome by people who have drunk too deeply of government-prepared Kool-aid.

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