California lawmakers took a major step toward reining in a controversial practice that has allowed law enforcement agencies to keep cash and other property seized during traffic stops -- even if the owner was never convicted of a crime.
On a bipartisan 66-8 vote, the state Assembly passed Senate Bill 443 Monday, nearly a year after the same house soundly defeated the measure. The difference? This year, powerful law enforcement groups that lobbied hard in 2015 to kill SB 443 stayed neutral after intense negotiations and some significant changes.
"The fundamental question is, should the government be able to permanently take your cash or other properties without proving you have committed a crime?" said Theshia Naidoo, a staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, which co-sponsored the measure.
Naidoo and other supporters said the measure, if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would be among the most sweeping recent reforms to what's known as asset forfeiture. The practice allows police to seize property if they believe it could be connected to illegal activity -- even if they never end up charging the owner with a crime. It gained favor by law enforcement agencies during the drug war as a way to starve drug traffickers of their cash flow even if there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.
But critics say the law has been used by some police agencies as a way to pad their own budgets with the property of innocent people -- often immigrants, the poor or others with limited means to fight to get their money back.