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Asset forfeiture in California criminal cases

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

Under California’s Senate Bill 443, law enforcement officials may not confiscate an individual’s property without a criminal conviction. As reported by Forbes magazine, SB-443 changed the way the state can seize an individual’s cash or property worth less than $40,000.

Prior to SB-443’s enactment, confiscating property raised numerous due process issues because federal law permitted officials to seize assets without an arrest or a conviction. Individuals who had property confiscated had to first prove their innocence through court proceedings to take back ownership. The time and cost of gaining back property took its toll on individuals later absolved of any wrongdoing.

Changes to California’s civil forfeiture process

After receiving numerous allegations of civil forfeiture abuse suffered by vulnerable individuals, California’s lawmakers enacted SB-443 to close a loophole previously used by law enforcement to seize assets. Under federal law, states could seize cash and property without a criminal conviction through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program.

Prior to SB-443, California officials working in conjunction with federal agencies seized cash almost 10,000 times through the U.S. DOJ’s program. By turning 20% of the seized assets over to federal officials for processing, the state could keep as much as the entire balance of the forfeiture even if the courts had not yet convicted an individual of wrongdoing.

Investigative work published in 2014 discovered that law enforcement throughout the U.S. seized cash over 60,000 times without indictments or warrants since the September 11 attacks occurred. Overall, local and state authorities kept over $1.5 billion of the confiscated assets, more than half of the total forfeited amount. California ranked as the second-worst state for civil forfeiture.

Proving a connection exists between property and illicit activities

In addition to a criminal conviction, SB-443 requires the prosecution to prove that any property in question has a connection to an actual crime before any real estate, boat or vehicle is subject to forfeiture. An aggressive defense may counteract a prosecutor’s allegations and serve to show that an individual had no knowledge of his or her property’s connection to any illicit activities.

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