Will California Stop Police from Taking People’s Property without a Criminal Conviction?

sb 443Almost a year after California lawmakers rejected legislation that would restrict police departments’ ability to take cars, cash, homes and other property from suspected criminals without a conviction, the bill’s author is trying again as similar efforts succeed across the country.

The practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, gained currency during the height of the drug war in the 1980s as a way for law enforcement to financially cripple drug lords and fund anti-narcotics operations. But advocates for reforming the laws say too often police officers ensnare innocent residents who are poor and have few resources to ensure their property is returned.

At its core, SB 443 sends basically a message to drug dealers that the cost of doing business has gone down.

A bill from state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) would require state and local police to get a criminal conviction before taking people’s money or other assets.

“There are some innocent people whose assets have been forfeited, and there are some of us who feel that’s unacceptable,” Mitchell said.

Lawmakers in Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., have already taken similarly strong steps to rein in civil forfeiture in recent years, along with a number of other states that have tightened their own guidelines. Behind these efforts is an unlikely coalition of supporters including labor and civil rights groups as well as conservative and libertarian organizations concerned about property rights.

Mitchell, considered one of the most liberal members of the Legislature, said she couldn’t think of another issue that aligned her with billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch, who is an opponent of asset forfeiture.

Liam Dillon
Los Angeles Times