Did you know that if you are arrested on suspicion of criminal activity, law enforcement officials can seize cash and property they believe could have been connected to the crime, in some cases without even filing criminal charges against you?
The practice is called civil asset forfeiture, and it is being used across the country to help fund some of the various police units and prosecutors’ offices that are doing the seizing of property.
Having risen to prominence in the 1980s as a tool in the war on drugs, civil asset forfeiture has seen a renaissance in recent years, growing as much as 600 percent between 2002 and 2012. And while the practice has had an impact on drug trafficking, it raises some serious questions about private property rights and due process.
The state of California has one of the more moderate approaches to asset forfeiture in the country, requiring a conviction before property valued under $25,000 can be forfeited, and demanding “clear and convincing evidence” that property valued over that threshold was used in the committing of a crime. However, a federal program called “equitable sharing” has allowed state and local authorities to substitute the lower federal requirements for forfeiture when working with federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
On September 29, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 443, effectively closing the “equitable sharing” loophole. The bill had received significant bipartisan support in the California legislature, as well as endorsements from justice reform groups across the political spectrum. And when the bill was amended during the course of the legislative session, even law enforcement groups like the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Sheriffs Association, and the California District Attorneys Association all rescinded their opposition to the bill.
“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in America today,” Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath says in a press release by the organization. “By generally requiring a criminal conviction, SB 443 would go far in curbing this abuse of power.”
Prison Fellowship was active in supporting SB 443, sending a letter to the chairman and the vice-chairman of Senate Public Safety Committee, and encouraging California residents to contact their elected officials in support of the bill. More recently, Prison Fellowship wrote to Governor Brown, urging him to sign the bill into law. These efforts, along with those of volunteers and advocates across the state, have helped to ensure that due process is being provided to men and women in California’s criminal justice system, and that property rights are being respected.
Do you want to see criminal justice measures like SB 443 enacted in your state? Visit our state advocacy page to see what reforms are being proposed where you live. And to make sure you are receiving the most recent news about pending bills and legislation, sign up to become part of our advocacy network of advocates across the country.