April 2015 Report Reveals Extensive Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has recently published the results of extensive research into the practice of civil asset forfeiture in the state of California. The paper is entitled, Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California.

This shocking report reveals how law enforcement agencies at both the state and local levels have been violating California and Federal law over the course of several years. In the name of civil asset forfeiture, governments have been permanently seizing property such as cash, automobiles, and real estate from people neither convicted of nor even charged with any criminal activity whatsoever. Amazingly, this is the “legal” aspect of civil asset forfeiture, and the illegal use of it is only worse.

In violation of the law, agencies have been allocating seized assets directly into their own funding programs. They have also been hiring new staff on asset-forfeiture enforcement units even while cutting down on patrol and investigation personnel. This bespeaks an ominously misplaced set of police priorities. While asset forfeiture was originally designed to bleed the financial resources of drug cartels and other criminal entities, it has evolved into a new source of income that law enforcement agencies consistently rely upon.

Above the Law notes that a few mid-sized cities in L.A. County are leading the state in civil asset forfeitures per capita. These municipalities include: Beverly Hills, West Covina, Gardena, South Gate, Baldwin Park, and Vernon. Some of these cities were found to have misinformed the DOJ in their official reports. Others were found to be making budgeting projections based on the assets they planned to seize, which is a direct violation of federal law.

The recent DPA report has called attention to police misuse of civil asset forfeiture as a primary source of funds, and has further bolstered the momentum for reform in both California and across the nation. Most people recognize the need for our law enforcement agents to receive adequate levels of funding, but they object to the seizure of private property from those never even charged with a crime and who may well be completely innocent.

In the interests of protecting the Constitutional rights of individual citizens, there have been numerous attempts at reform, including the following:

●         Early in 2015, New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez signed legislation that eliminated civil asset forfeiture in her state. New Mexico now protects its citizens against wrongful seizures more than any other state in the union.

●         This January, Attorney General Holder declared that new policies would soon be enacted to limit the ability of non-federal law enforcement agents to take possession of property without having evidence that a crime was committed.

●         Both political parties have co-sponsored the FAIR Act in the U.S. Congress in an effort to remedy federal abuses of civil asset forfeiture.

●         On July 15, California Senate Bill 443 passed and subsequently became law. The bill, which was co-sponsored by the DPA and ACLU, seeks to correct civil asset forfeiture abuses in California.

Despite these latest efforts to curtail abuse, civil asset forfeiture continues to be a problem. Originally, it was a tool used to fight drug cartels in the 80’s, and even today, many instances of civil forfeiture are drug-related. However, the power granted police to combat illegal narcotics soon led to questionable conduct and outright controversy. This led to a string of reform efforts in 10 states and at the federal level between 1996 and 2002. The DPA played a pivotal role in these reforms, including ballot measures that passed in Oregon and Utah in 2000 with two-thirds of the vote. Also in 2000, the Civil Forfeiture Reform Act was passed by Congress, and yet the problem still persisted. In 2012, for example, federal asset seizures increased to six times the 2001 figure to reach nearly $5 billion.

Contrary to the belief of some, civil forfeitures are not at all targeted only at the rich. It is not merely expensive automobiles, yachts, and plush ranches that get seized. Instead, the average asset-seizure in the state of California was only valued at $8,500 in 2013. This suggests that the poor and middle class are being targeting for asset seizures due to their lack of resources to defend themselves.

The complexity of state and federal regulations and the legal costs involved in fighting civil asset forfeiture often make it difficult for the average person to defend himself against law enforcement abuses. The assistance of an experienced and affordable attorney will be necessary for such persons to have any chance of winning back their assets and seeing true justice done.

Civil asset forfeiture treats you as if you were “guilty until proven innocent” by depriving you of your property without due process of law. The Constitutional guarantee of a trial by jury is also pushed aside, and law enforcement agencies are left with a free hand to seize the property of those not even charged with a crime- all in the name of winning the war on drugs. The fight will continue to remedy the nationwide abuse of private property rights known as “civil asset forfeiture,” and the release of the DPA study Above the Law is one significant step in seeking to expose and correct these abuses of power.