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 file a lawsuit and prove the money had nothing to do with an illegal drug transaction, past or future.

Former Assemblyman Chuck Devore noted in an op ed piece in the Sacramento Bee a year ago 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, which today (August 24) passed the Senate unanimously and now heads to the Governor’s desk, were to be enacted.  The bipartisan measure was 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.

What broke the Assembly opposition was an amendment allowing seizure of $40,000 or more in cash or the equivalent without a criminal conviction.

Footnote: Two years ago Californians Aware  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 sued Baldwin Park for its denial of access, and obtained a settlement under which the city committed to preserving and providing access to such records in the future.