California Bill Seeks to Rein in Policing for Profit

California lawmakers would like to make a simple adjustment to state law: No longer allowing law enforcement to seize and keep innocent people’s property.

That is the goal of SB 443, a bill that passed through the state legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. The bill would require a criminal conviction before police can seize and keep property like cars or houses. It would also prohibit California police from partnering with federal prosecutors in order to get a cut from seized assets–a process known as equitable sharing–in cases where the seizure is less than $40,000, unless the federal government first obtains a criminal conviction.

The Institute for Justice’s 2015 national forfeiture report, “Policing for Profit,” ranked California the second worst state in the country for taking advantage of the equitable sharing process so frequently.

Under SB 443, California prosecutors would also be prohibited from forfeiting cash in amounts less than $40,000 prior to a criminal conviction in state court—raising the threshold from its current $25,000.

It should go without saying that a person should be proven guilty of something before law enforcement can take title to their home, but one example from California shows that thanks to the practice of civil forfeiture, being innocent is not necessarily enough.

As CALmatters recently reported, a disabled Palo Alto woman was kicked out of her home because her nephew, unbeknownst to her, had sold drugs on the property. This case is similar to an ongoing legal battle in Philadelphia, in which the Institute for Justice (IJ) is defending innocent homeowners whose son had sold drugs near the premises. The owners themselves committed no crime, but because of civil forfeiture laws, the property can be kept regardless of the owners’ innocence.

Lee McGrath, IJ legislative counsel, was quoted by CALmatters on his optimism for SB 443:

“SB 443 isn’t the platinum reform standard for civil asset forfeiture, but it’s still a very good bill.” More to the point, this is a California bill. When California does something, everybody in the nation pays attention.”

The “platinum standard” McGrath is referring to currently exists only in New Mexico, which abolished civil forfeiture altogether last year. Even with such sweeping reform, however, the city of Albuquerque is openly flouting the law and illegally engaging in civil forfeiture, which IJ has filed a new lawsuit to combat. As long as the incentive to seize and keep assets still exists, the act of policing for profit is likely to continue.

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