Earlier this week, BenSwann.com brought news of a US marshal who was caught on camera on Sunday and seen in the above-embedded video apparently grabbing, smashing, and kicking away a woman’s camera as she filmed police who were engaging in a multi-agency crackdown on the Mongols Motorcycle Club in South Gate, CA. After news of the incident broke, Scott Shackford at Reason noticed that the city in which the incident occurred recently appeared in an article he wrote about a Drug Policy Alliance report on how a few small California cities and towns appear to be abusing a federal civil asset forfeiture program and racking up disproportionately huge quantities of revenue dollars compared to larger cities in the state.
Civil asset forfeiture is a civil process through which the government seizes property from someone accused of a crime, sometimes even from individuals who are never actually convicted of or charged with said crime.
Shackford’s analysis paints a picture of South Gate, CA as a city that is purposely focusing its law enforcement strategy on tag-teaming with federal agencies to conduct drug raids in an effort to obtain cash through civil asset forfeiture. Shackford wrote, “Partnering with federal law enforcement allows South Gate’s police to turn to the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program for assistance in seizing and keeping assets from these raids… South Gate, situated just south of Los Angeles, has a population of less than 100,000 people, but has collected more than $7.6 million in revenue using the federal Equitable Sharing Fund between 2006 and 2013. They’re ranked sixth in the state in per capita forfeiture revenue. They’ve received more seized funds through the federal forfeiture system during that timeframe than San Francisco (population: 800,000).” By obtaining assets through the federal program rather than a state-level program, South Gate police can keep 80% of the value of the assets seized, rather than the 65% that California’s government allows.
Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2012, the South Gate Police Department slashed its force down from 144 officers to just 117 while also doubling the number of employees working on asset forfeiture related efforts, meaning taxpayers are getting less and less police protection from a force that is raking in millions of additional dollars by seizing citizens’ property. The Drug Policy Alliance report noted that a South Gate police official said that excessive drug use in the area dictates that police “dedicate an unusual amount of people to narcotics enforcement.” The report also noted the fact that the South Gate Police Department violates Department of Justice policies by planning its future budgets based on how much revenue officials expect the department will rack up through civil asset forfeiture actions in the future. This means that budgets could crash if police do not seize enough property.
California State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) is attempting to address the problem of civil asset forfeiture abuse through her introduction of SB 443. The bill’s text states, “This bill would require a prosecuting agency to seek or obtain a criminal conviction for the unlawful manufacture or cultivation of any controlled substance or its precursors prior to an entry of judgment for recovery of expenses of seizing, eradicating, destroying, or taking remedial action with respect to any controlled substance. The bill would prohibit maintaining an action for recovery of expenses against a person who has been acquitted of the underlying criminal charges.”
Going further, SB 443 states, “The bill would prohibit state or local law enforcement agencies from transferring seized property to a federal agency seeking adoption by the federal agency of the seized property. The bill would also require that any property seized pursuant to any federal law that authorizes the sharing or transfer of forfeited property be distributed according to state law, thereby imposing a state-mandated local program. The bill would further prohibit state or local agencies from receiving specified seized property if a conviction for the underlying offenses is not obtained or if federal law prohibits distributing the proceeds or property received in accordance with state law.”