Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Approved in California

Published September 30, 2016

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill into law restricting local and state government police agencies’ ability to participate in a federal program distributing assets and property seized from citizens without criminal charges or search warrants.

In late August, the California Senate passed Senate Bill 443, introduced by state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) in February 2015 and passed by the State Assembly in August 2016. The bill, revived after nearly eight months of inactivity in the State Assembly, signed into law by Brown in late September.

After the law takes effect in January 2017, local and state police departments will be prohibited from using the U.S. Department of Justice’s “equitable sharing” program, a national program that doles out seized assets to local and state law enforcement agencies.

‘Many Reasons for Reform’

Diane Goldstein, a former lieutenant commander with the Redondo Beach, California police department and an executive board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international nonprofit organization of current and former members of law enforcement, says there are many reasons lawmakers should reform how civil asset forfeiture works.

“There’s many reasons for reform,” Goldstein said. “The biggest issue is that like any law that starts out with good intentions, the law has been so corrupted by government and by district attorneys and the Department of Justice and by local police that it has incentivized policing for profit and completely violates the Constitution.”

Rigging the System

Randall Holcombe, a professor of economics at Florida State University and a senior fellow of the James Madison Institute, says the current civil asset forfeiture system is rigged in favor of governments.

“There have been some well-publicized cases in which innocent people have lost their property to civil asset forfeiture,” Holcombe said. “In many cases, if they fight hard enough, they can get it back, but only after a delay and only after incurring substantial legal costs to do so. The problem is that assets can be seized without any evidence of criminal activity.”

Calls for Further Reforms

Holcombe says lawmakers should do more to protect people’s constitutional rights.

“My opinion is that civil asset forfeiture is unethical, creates very poor incentives for law enforcement, and should be eliminated completely, so it follows that my opinion is that these proposed changes don’t go far enough,” Holcombe said. “The incentives are still there for abusive and rights-violating actions by law enforcement personnel.”