California Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances in State Assembly

California is one step closer to sending a major civil forfeiture reform bill to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk after the Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety voted unanimously (7-0) to advance SB 443 to the Committee on Appropriations. The Appropriations Committee is the bill’s last hurdle before a vote in front of the full California State Assembly.

SB 443, which was introduced by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), already passed the Senate38-1 in June, although they will need to pass the updated version should the Assembly adopt the changes recommended by the Public Safety Committee. The California Legislature is currently on its summer recess, but advocates are hopeful that the bill will become law before the end of the legislative session in September.

While California’s forfeiture laws are better than others for property owners, civil forfeiture abuse has remained rampant because local law enforcement has been outsourcing criminal prosecution and forfeiture litigation to the federal government under controversial programs such as Equitable Sharing. This program allows state law enforcement to get around California laws by turning the case over to the feds in exchange for up to 80 percent of the booty. The last time California legislators tried to limit this practice was in 2000, when then-Governor Gray Davis vetoed the bill.

But momentum appears to be on the side of justice. In its current form, SB 443 would require prosecutors to “seek or obtain” a criminal conviction before anyone’s property is forfeited. Additionally, the bill requires that the suspect be convicted in criminal court before losing his property through forfeiture in civil court. Finally, property owners must receive specific instructions regarding their rights in forfeiture notices, and those that substantially prevail in court will be entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees.

While SB 443 does not completely eliminate the profit incentive, it does lower the percentage of funds that can flow back to the law enforcement agencies involved in forfeitures. And in the case of any funds received from the federal government, involved state parties may only receive reimbursement for the storage, sale, and transportation costs related to the forfeited property. The rest is sent straight to the State Treasury.

Special interest groups such as the California District Attorneys Association and the California Police Chief Association are strongly opposing the bill. Fortunately, however, there is a strong coalition of supporters joining the Institute for Justice that includes the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance. With that network of support, it appears that California legislators are standing firm, making it increasingly likely that California will soon see a major victory in the battle against policing for profit.

Josh Jones is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice.

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