Under Senate Bill 443, California’s law enforcement agencies will no longer be able to permanently seize cash and property from suspected drug dealers if the amount is less than $40,000. Only convicted criminals will be subjected to permanent seizures, and those acquitted of suspected crimes will no longer be responsible for law enforcement expenses.
Civil forfeiture in the United States is a controversial topic involving the seizure of private property belonging to those suspected of criminal activity. The idea is relatively simple, although implementation across the United States has been notoriously abused by law enforcement. Currently, law enforcement agencies can seize and hold any property that is associated with illegal activity through “clear and convincing evidence.”
Many people feel that asset forfeiture is a powerful tool in the fight against illegal drug markets. This policy allows law enforcement to confiscate property that is related to illegal drug sales. Any property belonging to suspected drug traffickers can be confiscated by authorities to prevent that individual from further engaging in business while the police build a case against their alleged crimes.
Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 443, which prevents California law enforcement from permanently confiscating property under $40,000 from individuals who have not yet been convicted of a crime. This reformation challenges the national forfeiture policy, which amounts to billions of dollars of seized property entering the control of law enforcement agencies every year.
Naturally, those opposed to SB 443 were the same people who stand to lose a source of income with these changes: law enforcement officials. California policing lobbies kept a similar bill from being passed last year, but months of negotiations have allowed California to move forward and set the bar for our nation’s policies.
Thousands of criminal suspects have their property seized every year, and California cops used the federal civil asset forfeiture law to obtain nearly $700 million between 2000 and 2013. That’s nearly $50 million dollars a year being taken by police from individuals who have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Data from both state and national arrest records shows that a substantial portion of people affected by civil forfeiture had financial possessions far under the $40,ooo limit set forth by Governor Brown. The focus of SB 443 is to prevent individuals from losing everything they own for simply being suspected of a petty drug crime.
America’s War on Drugs has disproportionately attacked individuals of color, especially those living in low-income districts. The Drug Policy Alliance released a report in 2013 that suggested the average property value seized under the current federal civil asset forfeiture laws is $5,000 in California.
California law enforcement agencies can still seize assets they believe were directly obtained or utilized through illegal criminal activity. When Senate Bill 443 goes into effect on January 1st, 2017, police forces will still be able to confiscate property when discovered in amounts over $40,000.
The goal of SB 443 is to keep police from engaging in aggressive confiscation tactics that target small-time drug users and dealers.
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