California Poised to Pass Momentous Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms

SB 443 establishes stricter standards to protect innocent, vulnerable Californians from having police take and keep their property

SACRAMENTO—A California bill to limit civil asset forfeiture abuses was approved today by the State Assembly on a 66 to 8 vote. The bill will now return to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

Senate Bill 443, co-authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Manhattan Beach), provides individuals with stronger property rights protections by requiring a conviction in most state civil asset forfeiture cases. The bill also addresses a problematic financial incentive that has driven some California law enforcement agencies to bypass state law in favor of federal law, opening the door to abuses.

“Today’s vote is a tremendous victory for fairness and justice,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director for the ACLU of California. “For years, the scales of justice were tipped in favor of profits and against the fundamental rights of countless Californians who were unfairly deprived of their life savings and property through civil forfeiture laws. Today, the Legislature got it right.”

Current state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws give the government permission to seize personal property, allowing law enforcement to then keep what they take. California law, however, provides greater due process protections than federal law. Federal law does not require a conviction and places the burden on defendants to prove their innocence and fight to get their assets back – at their own expense. Unfortunately, state and local law enforcement agencies can and do opt to use federal law.

“Low income people simply do not have the means to hire an attorney to get their lawfully earned cash returned to them. When their money gets taken by law enforcement, it’s a family crisis affecting rent, food, everything,” said Zachary Norris of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “Senator Mitchell’s bill will reduce the number of times that families in California are put in these completely untenable and fundamentally unjust situations.”

According to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, over the last ten years, the number of cases in which state and local law enforcement circumvented California law and used federal law instead tripled, while state cases have remained flat. That same report found that California law enforcement agencies raked in nearly $600 million from civil asset forfeitures under federal law between 2006 and 2013. Meanwhile, state forfeitures resulted in about $140 million for those agencies during that same time period.

“By passing SB 443, lawmakers are taking aim at an appalling loophole that has let California law enforcement pad their budgets,” said Lee McGrath, Legislative Counsel for the Institute for Justice. “Requiring a criminal conviction in most forfeiture cases is a common-sense approach to protecting the rights of the innocent, without jeopardizing public safety.”

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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SB 443 was introduced in the Legislature last year, sailing through the Senate, but failed to garner enough votes to make it off of the Assembly floor. The bill was amended earlier this year, prompting several law enforcement entities to remove their opposition to the bill.

Now that the Assembly has approved SB 443, the Senate will have to approve it once more before it is referred to Governor Jerry Brown for final approval.

If signed into law, SB 443 would offer some of the strongest personal property protections in the country. Specifically, SB 443 provides that:

  • Under federal cases, state and local law enforcement may only receive an equitable share of forfeited property if there is an underlying conviction, or the property is $40,000 or more in cash. Cash under $40,000, vehicles, boats, homes, and other types of personal property will require a conviction regardless of the value;
  • Under state cases, cash under $40,000 may be forfeited if there is an underlying conviction, increasing the cash value threshold from the current $25,000. Boats, vehicles, and homes will still require a conviction regardless of value.