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Cops bemoan drop in takings, but policing for profit is wrong

Cops bemoan drop in takings, but policing for profit is wrong

When the Legislature debated a bill to restrict California law enforcement agencies’ ability to seize houses, cars and cash they say may be “linked to crimes,” police and prosecutors complained that its passage would cost them millions of dollars that they depend upon to fund various programs.

A new analysis by the Southern California News Group has found that Senate Bill 443, which went into effect in 2017, has indeed slashed the money California agencies receive from “equitable sharing” — a civil-asset-forfeiture program whereby state and federal law enforcement split the proceeds of any private assets they take.

With the data in, police are complaining again about the financial hit, but the drop in revenue is good news for Californians. There’s nothing “equitable” about a program by which the government seizes property without first convicting its owners of a crime.

Asset forfeiture was created during the height of the 1980s War on Drugs to give cops a tool to attack the profit motive of drug kingpins. But then police agencies became addicted to the profits. Instead of targeting the likes of Pablo Escobar, they focused on easy marks. There is no due process, because the property, not its owners, is the target. So police don’t need to gain a conviction and victims have to go through a long process to try to get their property back.

That process is, quite frankly, un-American. Two former Justice Department officials who helped create asset forfeiture later argued that “the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.” They called for the program to be abolished, but there are few things tougher than prying funds from the hands of government agencies.

One 2012 Anaheim example encapsulated the problem. Anaheim police partnered with the feds to seize a $ 1.5 million office building after a tenant was accused of selling $ 37 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer.

The case eventually was dropped, but it shows how the program targets ordinary people. Police have confiscated people’s cars after picayune amounts of drugs were detected or seized cash after a traffic stop without ever linking it to criminal activity.

While they grab people’s assets without proving law breaking, some police departments have themselves played fast and loose with the rules. The “equitable sharing” idea was designed to let local agencies circumvent state laws that limited the use of forfeiture. Instead of following state limits, locals operated under looser national standards and then split the loot with the feds.

Asset-forfeiture funds were never supposed to supplant agencies’ budgets, but only to fund extra programs. The agencies, however, have come to depend on the cash for their operations. They sometimes treat the money in questionable ways, with a recent report suggesting that a New York district attorney used these dollars to pay for luxury travel.

We’re dismayed that California law enforcement continues to criticize SB443 based on budgetary concerns. Sorry, but police are required to pursue justice, not profits. If law-enforcement agencies really want to seize private assets, they can do so — but only after convicting the owner of a crime.

There’s a need for federal reforms, but at least California’s law is showing results.

Press Enterprise