Governor Brown Signs Bill to Protect Californians from Civil Forfeiture Abuse
California now has some of the most far reaching protection against law enforcement seizing property and money. Starting January 1, 2017, for there to be a civil forfeiture of property or money in most cases, the government will first have to obtain a criminal conviction before they can keep the property or money.
Prior to this new law being passed, there were very few restrictions on State law enforcement regarding forfeiture cases. Often times, when police make drug arrests, along with evidence they also seize any money they find assuming it had to do with drug dealing. In 1994, California set up rules concerning these cases, including that the government had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property seized was tied to the illegal activity.
In response, to get around the limitations, State law enforcement would turn the money over to Federal officials for Federal forfeiture, thereby sneaking around the State rules. Then, State law enforcement would get some of the money back from the Feds.
The new law works to prevent this from happening. It also now requires the State to get a conviction before it can profit from the property or money seized in many cases. The new law will require a conviction before any forfeiture where the sized items were up to $40,000.00 or other property like cars and houses regardless of their value. Previously, there was only protection for up to $25,000.00.
Furthermore, in cases where the Federal forfeiture process is used, the new law prevents law enforcement from making any profit from the seized property or money unless there was a conviction in an underlying cases involving up to $40,000.00 or cars or houses. The reason for the limit of up to $40,000.00 is because law enforcement and prosecutors originally were against the bill. So, it was negotiated that civil forfeitures over $40,000.00 would not need to have a conviction. IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW THAT EVEN THOUGH THAT PROTECTION DOESN’T EXIST, PEOPLE CAN STILL FIGHT THE STATE KEEPING THEIR SEIZED PROPERTY AND MONEY. Law enforcement had made it a practice to seize as much valuable property as they could when a drug arrest was made just on the assumption that the property was tied to the illegal activity. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be the property of the person arrested. They did so, not because they were sure the property was from illegal profits, but, rather so they could cash in and profit from the seizures.
The new bill means to stop that abuse. The bill was widely supported and eventually even the opposition of prosecutors and law enforcement was dropped. Part of the groundwell of support for the new change came after areport, “Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California” was published outlining how law enforcement was essentially stealing and profiting from seized property and money without proof it was from an illegal activity.
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