Small L.A. County Cities Clean up by Seizing Assets in Civil Forfeitures

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tiny California towns take note: You, too, can fatten your city coffers working tangentially with the federal government to seize assets in civil forfeiture before a suspect is convicted of a crime, just like the big boys.

The Drug Policy Alliance released a report (pdf) this week that eight out of the Top 10 agencies statewide raking in the most money per capita from civil forfeiture were police department in small to medium cities in Los Angeles County. And it may not have been all above board.

“These cities were also found to have contravened Federal Justice Department forfeiture regulations numerous times,” the report says.

Under forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors can seize property and cash from suspects before a conviction has been obtained. The law, also known as equitable sharing, was originally developed as a powerful federal tool against organized crime, especially drug traffickers. But then it morphed as the feds lent their authority to purely local busts of criminals involved in somewhat lesser crimes.

The report quotes LAPD Deputy Chief Glenn Levant from 1988: “We wouldn't have a war on drugs in Los Angeles if it weren't for equitable sharing. This program is the greatest thing that ever happened to local law enforcement.”

The tiniest of cities, Vernon (pop. 112), has by far the highest per capita revenue from forfeiture between fiscal years 2006 and 2013, when it raked in $986,275. That works out to $8,806 per person. It is followed by Irwindale (pop.1,422), which pulled in $802,856 at a per capita rate of $565, and Beverly Hills (pop. 34,109), which snagged $7.3 million at a per capita of $215.

Imperial County cities of El Centro and Calexico took the 4th and 9th spot on the list. The other L.A. County cities are La Verne, South Gate, Pomona, Baldwin Park and Gardena.

La Verne (pop. 31,063) collected $3 million, $730,000 more than Oakland, which has 12 times the population. Irwindale outstripped Bakersfield, which has 244 times the population, $802,856 to $571,796.

But large cities and small indulge in civil forfeiture. Law enforcement agency revenues in the state tripled from the practice between 2002 and 2013, according to the report. Aggressive use of forfeiture has been stimulated by budget cuts in hard economic times, although law forbids using it strictly as a revenue stream.   

Asset forfeiture revenue has become a staple of some agencies, all the better because it is less transparent to the public than budgetary allocations. The practice has come under scrutiny of late, and in January U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the practice would only be allowed when there was “evidence that a crime occurred.”

There is some question how much of an effect that will have. Earlier this month, New Mexico became just the second state to effectively ban civil forfeiture, joining North Carolina.  

California would join them if Senate Bill 443 passes. It was introduced in the Legislature in February and was co-sponsored by the ACLU, the Institute for Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance. It has not had a committee hearing yet.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Report: Small L.A. County Cities Seize Large Amounts in Civil Forfeitures (by Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times)

New Mexico Is the Second State to Ban Police from Seizing Innocent People’s Property (by Carimah Townes, ThinkProgress)

Asset Seizures Fuel Police Spending (by Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Steven Rich, Washington Post)

Feds Reel In Asset Forfeitures that Southern California Cops Feast On (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture in California (Drug Policy Alliance) (pdf)

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