ACLU Report: Police Use Loophole to Profit from Innocent, Vulnerable Californians

Policy brief exposes alarming cases of civil asset forfeiture abuse

The American Civil Liberties Union of California released a policy brief today, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Profiting from California’s Most Vulnerable, examining civil asset forfeiture abuse by California law enforcement agencies, a practice that greatly impacts communities of color and low-income Californians.

Under federal asset forfeiture laws, the government can legally and permanently forfeit a person’s property and money without charging the person with a crime, or seeking a conviction.

Read our blog about how police took more property
from people in the U.S. in 2014 than burglars.

California laws offer stronger protections, but state and local law enforcement agencies can circumvent them and operate under federal law by using the federal government’s “equitable sharing” program. Under this program, California police can take and keep 80 percent of the profits from seizures, thus providing agencies with a financial incentive to use federal law instead of state law.

The ACLU brief reveals that California’s most vulnerable, largely people who do not have the means to fight the government in court or who are susceptible to law enforcement intimidation tactics, are falling prey.

“Civil asset forfeiture has allowed for rampant abuse, exploitation, and marginalization of low-income communities and people of color,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, criminal justice and drug policy director with the ACLU of California. “California police are padding their budgets with innocent Californians’ hard-earned money and property.”

Among the report findings:

  • The vast majority (85%) of the proceeds of federal asset forfeiture in California goes to agencies that police communities that are majority people of color;
  • Half of DEA seizures from California involved people with Latino surnames;
  • Counties with higher per capita seizure rates have an annual household income below the state median; and
  • The number of California law enforcement agencies taking advantage of federal civil asset forfeiture laws has increased from 200 to 232 in just the last two years.

The findings underscore an urgent need for reform.

Fortunately, the California Legislature has the ability to close the door on civil asset forfeiture abuse by passing Senate Bill 443, introduced last year by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and co-authored by Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach). SB 443 would prevent California police from forfeiting a person’s money or property if the person has not been convicted of a crime. The bill is currently pending on the Assembly floor and will likely be brought up for a vote later this month.

SB 443 is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, CHIRLA-Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Institute for Justice.

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