Californians Aware has filed suit against the City of Baldwin Park for failing to provide access to records showing how it justifies claims for “equitable shares” of cash and property seized by the federal government in its civil asset forfeiture program.

The city has one of more than a dozen smaller police departments in Los Angeles County that have been supplementing  or even supplanting their operating budgets with their take of spoils confiscated in federal drug crime investigations. To justify their share, local law enforcement departments must submit detailed applications to the federal Department of Justice showing how they assisted a federal investigation.

Copies of the “DAG-17” application forms are, under federal regulations, required to be on file with the departments submitting them. But as discovered by CalAware and the author of the recently released report from the Los Angeles-based Drug Policy Alliance—critical of abuses of the “equitable sharing” program—most of the cities surveyed did not produce the records, either denying that they had them, referring requests to the Department of Justice, claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) as records of a law enforcement investigation, or simply failing to respond at all to the CPRA requests.

In commenting on the suit, CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke said, “Civil asset forfeiture is itself not well known to most people but highly controversial among those who do, except the local police agencies that profit from it.  The practice was vividly illustrated recently by satirical journalist John Oliver on an episode of his HBO show, ‘Last Week Tonight,’ which also looked at what local police departments do with their shares of the confiscated cash and property.

“The Drug Policy Alliance’s April 21 exposé, ‘Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture in California,” points out the several ways in which the Legislature’s attempt to limit the harmful exploitation of asset forfeiture by local law enforcement departments has been bypassed.  As it notes,

Circumventing state law can impose an insurmountable financial burden on low-income and immigrant families and others lacking sufficient resources to defend themselves against forfeiture actions. An investigation by the San Jose Mercury News found many poor people who spoke little or no English caught up in a legal maze struggling to get their property back. That investigation led to major reforms to California law that improved due process and reduced police profit. This report reveals how law enforcement agencies in California have responded by turning to federal forfeiture, where these safeguards don’t apply.

“We believe the first step in any effort to control those abuses is to examine each department’s DAG-17 form documentation, and that step demands the transparency that Californians are entitled to under the Public Records Act.”