The California Assembly has just rejected a measure aimed at limiting their ability to seize assets and property from people merely accused of a crime. These practices continue to draw the ire of most Americans and have inspired multiple internal investigations from various departments of our government. Yet, ironically, the recent rejection may be tied to pressure from the very same government.
Dating back to the 1600s and tied to British maritime law, these practices allow for law enforcement to take anything considered an asset from anyone suspected of involvement in any crime. Furthermore, no charges need to be filed for this to occur. The current laws, which were enacted during the frenzied and draconian war on drugs era of the 1980’s, as an attempt to stop criminal activity and mitigate ill-gotten gains, have seen a massive uptick in the past 30 years. The only other time in modern history that there has been any prevalence of this practice was during the Prohibition period of the 1930s, where bootleggers had vehicles, property, and cash seized; which is fitting, as many see the war on drugs as a new form of prohibition and absolutism.
Where the imbalance appears is when the exonerated or those not charged attempt to retrieve what was seized, and there are numerous stories of individuals being unable to recuperate most, if any of their property, discovering it has been “reallocated” into the local police department or pension fund. In 2013, two California gamblers were pulled over in Iowa, after their vehicle vaguely resembled one of interest. Once they were stopped, it was discovered they were travelling with over $100,000, which were winnings from a World Series of Poker event, and trace amounts of marijuana (both individuals had valid medical marijuana cards). They were interviewed and released, but, nonetheless, their cash was seized and a legal battle ensued. Among the few lucky ones, they were able to retrieve a $90,000 “settlement,” which now included legal fees and an ongoing legal battle to retrieve the rest.
With hopes to follow in footsteps of Montana and New Mexico, where forfeiture now requires a criminal conviction, California was the next to entertain such reforms. However, according to documents acquired by the Institute of Justice, and reported by Forbes, the federal government intervened. Allegedly, the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Treasury Department would not allow California to participate in a larger federal program (one that would bring tens of millions of dollars to the state), if reforms were to pass. While there are often threats of de-funding over legislation, this was proven true for New Mexico, who found themselves “decertified.” Essentially, if the reforms are passed, then those states face a prohibition of participation in “the more lucrative program.”
Whether or not the rejection was a result of federal intervention, the same practices are still legal and accountability is scarce for now. While these laws have enabled authorities to recoup illegal funds from the likes of Bernie Madoff and murderous cartel members, what is the trade off? The constitution guarantees due process of law, are we getting that in this case?
September 11, 2015 / Ryan Serey