I always feel validated when I see my opponents on the defensive, even if I’m not necessarily the one who put them there. So I couldn’t help experiencing a twinge of gratification when I read Lt. Chris Piombo of the Lodi, California Police Department “setting the record straight on asset forfeiture laws” in the Lodi News-Sentinel. He doesn’t write anything false, but he only tells half the story, and here’s where he gives the game away:
There seems to be a misconception that law enforcement as a whole seizes money, cars, homes, etc., and that we get to keep the money or profits from sale to supplement our budgets or that we get to use things such as seized vehicles for our own benefit. This is not necessarily the case.
True, it’s not necessarily the case. Piombo continues by detailing the requirements for forfeiture in California and how forfeiture funds must be spent under California law. What he doesn’t tell his readers is how the federal forfeiture law and its equitable sharing program work.
Under federal law, property can be forfeited with a preponderance of the evidence (as opposed to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in criminal trials) and without any criminal conviction. Also, up to 80 percent of the proceeds can be sent back to the local law enforcement agency that initiated the forfeiture. Those funds are supposed to be spent on law enforcement purposes, but there is little oversight on equitable sharing funds. I wrote about the consequences of that lack of oversight just last week, pointing out that a prosecutor in Piombo’s own state was using her equitable sharing dollars as a de-facto campaign fund.
Furthermore, the lack of due process rights for property owners at the federal level and the relative generosity of the equitable sharing program towards local law enforcement agencies encourage police and prosecutors to work around their state laws. So, yes, California has a relatively stringent asset forfeiture law, but it doesn’t make much difference when local law enforcement can ignore those requirements by taking their cases federal.