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California's new law makes it impossible for police to steal your cash and property for themselves unless you're convicted of a crime.


California — In a refreshing and unfortunately rare instance of reasonableness in policy, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a piece of legislation requiring police to secure an actual conviction before stealing people’s stuff in drug-related offenses.

Civil asset forfeiture has been rightly likened to state-sanctioned armed robbery, as it allows police to commandeer cash, vehicles, homes, or any property of value — even if the person is never charged with a crime — and then use or sell the items for profit for their departments.

Police in Oklahoma, for example, recently honed their thievery by rolling out nefarious Electronic Recovery and Access to Data machines, known as ERAD, which can scan your bank account and prepaid cards, and — if an officer believes any balances are tied to a crime — can wipe those accounts dry.

California’s new law, formerly Senate Bill 443, quashes this nightmarish policing-for-profit in the exact way advocates of civil asset forfeiture (CAF) reform have been demanding for years.

For police to keep cash stolen from people in amounts under $40,000 under the premise it has something to do with a drug-related crime, there must be an actual guilty verdict in court.

“The new law establishes some of the strongest property rights protections in the most populous state in the nation,” explained Theshia Naidoo, legal director of criminal justice at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “The reforms are a model not only because of the policy enacted, but also for how the legislative process should work to promote the best interests of Californians.”

California’s version of legalized armed robbery is particularly pernicious, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California pointed out, allowing some police departments to keep 80 percent of the proceeds from their CAF booty — well over the 65 percent cap mandated by state law.

In part, this is due to civil asset forfeiture’s evil twin — federal equitable sharing — a convenient workaround for strict laws protecting civilians from greedy cops.

“Unfortunately, California law enforcement has found a lucrative way to evade the state’s better-than-average laws: the federal government’s equitable sharing program,”wrote the Institute for Justice last year. “Indeed, a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance noted that while state forfeiture revenue has remained flat, equitable sharing revenue has skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2013, California agencies collected an eye-popping $696 million, or nearly $50 million each calendar year, through equitable sharing with the Department of Justice. A large majority of both assets seized and proceeds received resulted not from adoptions but from joint task forces and investigations with the federal government. This vehicle for equitable sharing will continue despite DOJ policy changes announced in January 2015. California law enforcement also hauled in almost $108 million from the Treasury Department’s equitable sharing program during fiscal years 2000 to 2013.”

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As High Timesnoted, a report by the Drug Policy Alliance in 2013 found the average cash seized totaled $5,100 — an alarmingly high sum, considering the same report cited an investigation which discovered in roughly 80 percent of those cases, the person was never charged with a crime.

Law enforcement unions around the country have adamantly opposed any reforms to their convenient second profit source, and after a brief federal suspension of civil asset forfeiture at the beginning of the year, the Department of Justice reversed course, re-implementing CAF in April.

As voracious as police appetites’ for your stuff might be, one of the original creators of the civil asset forfeiture program excoriated its current manifestation as profiteering from behind a badge in an op-ed penned in the Wall Street Journal in February this year. Brad Cates, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Office from 1985 through 1989, wrote:

“During the Reagan administration I helped establish these programs because I believed they would quickly channel seized criminals’ profits into the fight against organized crime and drug cartels. Yet over time we have created a new bad incentive: policing for profit, out of the reach of the proper legislative budget process.”

California’s law will go into effect in the beginning of 2017, and — out of several states recently attempting to curb the ridiculous practice — is so far the only legislation to mandate an actual conviction, a guilty verdict, in order for police to keep assets.

Writes the Drug Policy Alliance:

“Civil asset forfeiture has allowed the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity even if the owner is never convicted of a crime. While civil asset forfeiture was originally conceived in the 1980s as a way to target the resources of criminal organizations, it has become a method for law enforcement to confiscate and profit from the savings and property of those not charged with any criminal wrongdoing [...]

“SB 443 requires that state and local agencies abide by stricter standards before they profit from federal forfeitures.”

Echoing countless others, Cates concludes his editorial in no uncertain terms:

“Three decades ago I helped create our civil-asset forfeiture system; now it is time to end it.”