In 2015, a San Diego resident was driving down the I-5 when she was pulled over by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies. It started as a routine traffic stop, but it ended with the officers taking $18,000 in cash from her. She had done nothing wrong and even had the paperwork to show that the money was to pay her janitorial company employees. In another traffic stop, a San Diego Marine returning from deployment had $1,200 in rent money taken by officers. They claimed it was drug money, even though there were no drugs or any evidence to suggest that. Unfortunately, scenarios like these have played out countless times up and down the Golden State.
The worst part is that it’s actually legal. It’s called civil asset forfeiture. All it takes for law enforcement to take your property under federal law is that they believe, or say they believe, that the property is related to criminal activity in some way. They don’t have to prove it in court and they can and do take property from people who are clearly innocent (such as a homeowner whose renter or family member was suspected of criminal activity).
In San Diego County in the last two years, law enforcement agencies have received more than $10 million in proceeds from cash, cars and property that were taken from people under federal civil asset forfeiture laws – which do not require that a person even be suspected of a crime. That’s millions in hard-earned money and assets from people who may not have done anything wrong.
Originally intended to combat organized crime and cripple drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture has morphed into legalized highway robbery and swept up countless innocent Californians.
Fortunately, state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mike Hadley (R-Torrance) are working on a legislative fix to curb this injustice. The bill, SB 443, enjoys strong bipartisan support, including from San Diego Sen. Joel Anderson, and would require that someone be convicted of a crime before the police could permanently take their money or property away. Having passed out of the state Senate nearly unanimously, it is now facing significant pushback in the Assembly from the agencies that benefit financially from the current practice.
Although California strengthened state property protections laws years ago, California police have been circumventing state law by using a federal program known as equitable sharing. Under this program, California law enforcement agencies can take and keep innocent people’s money and property, because federal law does not require a conviction and actually lets California agencies keep a larger cut of the proceeds than is allowed under state law.
California police are exploiting this lucrative loophole that incentivizes department profits over justice. As with any abusive police practice, policing for profit has taken an especially hard toll on low-income people of color. According to a Washington Post review of federal court records, the vast majority of people who challenged seizures and received some money back were black, Latino or another minority. Other investigations, including those in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, found similar results.
Right here in San Diego, the city police departments with the fastest-growing seizures are communities made up predominantly of people of color. Between 2013 and 2015, Chula Vista Police Department has increased its haul of asset forfeiture funds by 60 percent, and National City Police Department by a whopping 112 percent. Of the two San Diegans profiled above, one was Latina, the other black.
It is easy to see why vulnerable Californians are deemed easy targets: They are less likely to come forward and fight the government because doing so is expensive and has been known to morph from asset forfeiture into deportation investigations of relatives and IRS involvement. What’s more, this practice, which throws the Constitution and state law out the window, can drive already struggling families deeper into poverty.
The California Legislature should act to rein in asset forfeiture abuse and pass SB 443. We owe it to every single hardworking Californian who has ever been forced to pay the price of this rampant abuse and injustice.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is the ACLU of California’s criminal justice and drug policy director. She lives in San Diego. Dooley-Sammuli’s letter has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.