Highway robbery isn’t—when it’s done by a California police officer or sheriff’s deputy. Instead, it’s called civil asset forfeiture. If you’re caught with large amounts of cash in your vehicle, you lose it (and maybe the vehicle) to the law enforcement agency that finds it until and unless you can prove the money had nothing to do with an illegal drug transaction, past or future.
Former Assemblyman Chuck Devore noted in his Sunday op ed piece in the Sacramento Bee that this practice of legalized larceny—one of the most glaring perversions of justice in the long lost War on Drugs—would be put out of business if Senate Bill 443, now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, to be heard Thursday, were to become law. The bipartisan measure is unsurprisingly opposed most strongly by the law enforcement industry, which benefits hugely from this Forget-Due-Process bounty. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office warns that if the bill were to pass, Where will we get the money to sustain the War on Drugs?
Current law does not require a criminal conviction for drug asset forfeiture where the property to be forfeited is cash or a negotiable instrument worth $25,000 or more. SB 443 would require a criminal conviction in these cases. This is problematic as many criminals fail to file a claim for large amounts of drug money in order to avoid criminal prosecution. In these cases, it is fairly clear that the seized asset is drug money but asset forfeiture would no longer be available in cases where the defendant cannot be prosecuted (possibly because he or she has fled the jurisdiction or witnesses are unavailable to testify).
SB 443 reduces the amount of forfeited assets that may be distributed to law enforcement and prosecutors, thus hurting our ability to fund future anti-drug efforts. Loss of these funds could make it difficult to investigate and prosecute major illicit drug operations in California.
Californians Aware last year requested from several Southern California cities copies of their applications to the federal Department of Justice for an “equitable share” of the assets seized by the feds thanks to local tips and assistance. One city complied; the rest called the records confidential or made no response at all. CalAware is currently suing Baldwin Park for its denial of access, with a hearing set for next March.