Last month, California became the eighteenth state in the past two years to reform its civil forfeiture laws. The new law, which Gov. Brown signed on September 29, raises the prerequisite for conviction from $25,000 to $40,000. It also includes a critical circumvention deterrence, which requires a criminal conviction before law enforcement agencies in the state can receive equitable-sharing payments on forfeited property from the federal government.
A Wall Street Journal editorial on the bill’s signing said:
According to the Institute for Justice, whose reports on “policing for profit” galvanized political reaction against forfeiture abuse, from 2000 to 2013 the Justice Department kicked back some $696 million in forfeiture money to state and local law enforcement. The new California law closes the federal loophole and will protect those who can’t afford to fight unjust forfeiture.
According to IJ’s report, Policing for Profit, from 2002 to 2013 law enforcement agencies in California received an average of $23 million annually under state forfeiture law. At the same time, from 2000- 2013 these agencies also received an average of $50 million annually under federal law through equitable-sharing payments.
Equitable-sharing payments are made when property seized by local and state law enforcement agencies or joint task-forces are forfeited federally, allowing local agencies to receive up to 80 percent of proceeds. According to Policing for Profit between 2000 and 2013 the DOJ paid local and state agencies more than $4.7 billion in equitable sharing proceeds. At the end of 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) suspended equitable-sharing payments citing budget complaints following the passage of the federal budget. In March 2016, the DOJ announced it was resuming equitable-sharing payments to local and state law enforcement agencies.
Last year, SB 443 failed to pass the California State Assembly following interference by the federal government. Documents obtained by IJ revealed that the DOJ and the Treasury Department were considering disqualifying all law enforcement agencies from the equitable sharing program if the bill was passed. Similar issues did not arise in this legislative session, due to public exposure of this collusion.