California Senate Bill Set to Close the Civil Asset Forfeiture Loophole
California law currently requires a criminal conviction before property under $25,000 can be forfeited in favor of the state, but through a loophole known as federal equitable sharing these restrictions can become null and void. When states create joint task forces with federal agencies, they use federal forfeiture laws instead of state law to guide seizures, therefore skirting more restrictive local laws. The profits from these joint tasks forces can still be fruitful for local agencies, though, as they are able to keep up to 80% of the funds seized while the remaining percentage goes to federal agencies.
According to a report from the Institute for Justice, between 2000 and 2013 California law enforcement received almost $700 million from the U.S. Department of Justice for forfeitures won in joint task forces. Under the stricter California law, California agencies collected only $280 million during the same time period. This places California among the states most abusing the equitable sharing program.
If adopted, SB443 would limit the proceeds gained by California to only allow funds to be shared between federal and state agencies if a conviction is obtained in federal court, effectively matching what the state law requires. Currently, California law requires a criminal conviction for any forfeiture under $25,000, but SB443 would extend the requirement of conviction to all types of property and for all amounts. If adopted, this bill would help to eliminate incentives to “police for profit” through the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program.
California SB443 passed through the state Senate 38-1 in 2015, but has been stuck in the state Assembly for almost a year. State Senator Holly Mitchell reintroduced the bill in May 2016. If this bill is not adopted, it is likely that California will remain among the worst in the country for abuse of equitable sharing, threatening due process and private property rights in the state.