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Forfeiture Reform Comes to California

Good news out of the Golden State! As this issue went to print, SB 443—a significant overhaul of California’s forfeiture laws—will have become law. The Golden State now provides a powerful model for reforming state forfeiture laws, following IJ’s success in helping enact forfeiture reform this year in Florida, Maryland, Nebraska and New Hampshire.

Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on property rights today. By generally requiring a criminal conviction to forfeit property, SB 443 better protects the due process and property rights of owners.

For more than two decades, California state law has required a criminal conviction before real estate, vehicles, boats and cash under $25,000 could be forfeited to the government. But those requirements are lacking in federal law.

During that period, local and state law enforcement agencies exploited the difference. California agencies routinely participated in the federal government’s equitable sharing program because it does not require a criminal conviction. And the federal program pays back a greater percentage of proceeds to state law enforcement than agencies are entitled to under state law.

IJ’s 2015 report Policing for Profit found that between 2000 and 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice paid local and state agencies in California more than $696 million in equitable sharing proceeds, or nearly $50 million a year on average. By comparison, agencies averaged $23 million a year in forfeiture proceeds under state law.

To curb the outsourcing of forfeiture litigation to the federal government, SB 443 requires a criminal conviction in federal court before California agencies can receive payments from the federal government on forfeited real estate, vehicles, boats and cash valued under $40,000. This will close most of the equitable sharing loophole: Half of all properties forfeited under equitable sharing are worth less than $9,000.

Based in part on IJ’s model legislation, SB 443 had support from a bipartisan coalition that included the ACLU of California, the Drug Policy Alliance and other local groups.

California is just the latest state to join a growing forfeiture reform movement. In the past two years alone, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have reformed their forfeiture laws, with policies ranging from better transparency requirements to abolishing civil forfeiture altogether. And similar to California, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico and D.C. have reduced equitable sharing loopholes.

California’s reforms will strengthen the rights of nearly 40 million people. They will also signal to legislators in Congress and other states the growing momentum for forfeiture reform. Of course, IJ will be there to fight until civil forfeiture is abolished or, at the very least, radically reformed.

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