As local law enforcement officers make arrests, they seize all kinds of stuff—drugs, guns, cash, nice TVs and audio systems purchased with proceeds from drug trafficking. If prosecutors land convictions, the seized goods are sold at auction, and the District Attorney’s office doles out the cash.
Last year, that meant a total of $161,000 distributed to Monterey County through this practice, called asset forfeiture.
Assembly Bill 443, introduced Feb. 23 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, would expand law enforcement officers’ powers to seize goods even before an arrest is made.
The bill is sponsored by Attorney General Kamala Harris, a candidate for U.S. Senate. (Harris is also sponsoring SB 298 introduced by Marty Block, D-San Diego, which would grant wiretapping powers in money laundering cases.)
“The legislation will equip local and state law enforcement with more tools to target their illicit profits and dismantle [transnational criminal] organizations,” Harris said in a statement.
Alejo’s bill is designed to stop criminals from destroying valuables before an arrest is made. It would allow local and state law enforcement officials to seize goods worth at least $10,000, and when “the need to preserve the property…outweighs the hardship on any party against whom the order is to be entered.”
This proposed expansion of the powers of asset forfeiture in California comes fives weeks after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, citing civil rights concerns, announced the feds were ending certain aspects of their asset forfeiture program. In 2013, federal attorneys distributed $1.1 billion obtained through asset forfeiture.
Monterey County Deputy District Attorney John Hubanks, who handles many of the DA's asset forfeiture cases, says the point is not to make money for law enforcement off crime—it's to hurt criminal enterprises financially, cutting them down at the knees.
“The forfeiture statute doesn’t exist to generate money,” he says. “But there is a deterrent effect to taking money away from a drug dealer. That’s a message, and it’s a good message.”
Alejo echoed that message in comments on why he was introducing the bill.
“Many of these organizations are operating in cities that I represent—Salinas, Watsonville, Soledad and King City,” Alejo said in a statement. “They use our kids as pawns, many of whom wind up in jail or dead, and they do this all to make a profit. Communities have been destroyed because of these gangs, and it is time we put an end to that.”