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Bill to Limit Police Property Seizures Sails Through California Assembly

If you haven’t been convicted of a crime, California state Sens. Holly Mitchell and David Hadley think the police shouldn’t be able to take your stuff.

That might sound like common sense, but it would be a dramatic shift away from existing state law, under which authorities can seize belongings — cars, cash, real estate, you name it — from individuals only suspected of a crime. The tactic is especially common in cases involving alleged drug trafficking, and in some cases it’s even been used against state-legal medical cannabis businesses.

Senate Bill 443, which passed the Assembly on Monday with a bipartisan 66–8 vote, would bar law enforcement from seizing less than $40,000 unless the owner is indeed convicted of a crime. The Drug Policy Alliance, which co-sponsored the measure, is heralding it as “one of the most far reaching civil asset forfeiture reforms in the country.”

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Civil asset forfeiture is a favorite law enforcement tool in part because, under both state and federal asset forfeiture laws, local agencies that assist on the case receive a significant portion of the seized funds. Critics, however, say the practice has become perverted as local law enforcement agencies seek to pad police budgets. Many actions under the current system target relatively low-value belongings, and owners often can't afford to fight the seizures in court. The average value of a state seizure in California in 2013 was $5,145, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

“I was concerned about folks with small amounts of money, relatively speaking, who were losing their cash, looking for counsel who specialize in asset forfeiture, and spending more money to try to get their eight grand or less back,” Mitchell said, according to Capital Public Radio.

The bipartisan bill, co-authored by Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Hadley (R-Torrance) still has to win approval from the state Senate and a signature from Gov. Jerry Brown in order to become law. But the legislation’s victory in the Assembly is already a major turnaround from its fate last year, when it drew opposition from nearly every district attorney in the state. The pushback worked, and the bill fell flat last September on the Assembly floor.

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After negotiations and a number of amendments, however, opposition from most law enforcement groups has faded. The California Narcotic Officers Association remains opposed, but the bill this year enjoys widespread support — including from a number of Republicans.

GOP Assemblyman Donald Wagner called the compromise “the model of lawmaking.”

“When you do have those clashes, you can find the middle ground,” he said during Assembly debate on Monday. “You can find a way to protect liberty, you can find a way to keep these tools in the hands of law enforcement, and you can do it with a bill that deserves unanimous support on this floor.”

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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