Police Asset Forfeiture Collections Explode, Approach $800,000 in Just 8 Months

Published : Tuesday, March 19, 2019 | 5:16 AM

Police raids such as the Pasadena police operation shown above can result in the seizure of assets by the government. To get back the seized property, owners must prove it was not involved in criminal activity.

Pasadena Police Chief John Perez is expected to tell the City’s Public Safety Committee Wednesday that his department has raked in an eye-popping $788,089 from asset forfeitures since last July – a huge jump from the $28,929 it collected from forfeitures in all of fiscal year 2018.

Asset forfeiture is when the government takes property which criminal suspects obtained through, or used in, illegal activity.

The practice is, Perez said in his submission, “intended to disrupt criminal activities, through the seizure and forfeiture of the instruments or proceeds of crimes. It typically applies to the alleged proceeds or instruments of crimes.”

Which is to say, if you bought a car with drug money, law enforcement can confiscate and sell it. If you sell drugs in a car, law enforcement can confiscate and sell that one as well.

Perez’s report includes a table detailing asset forfeiture funds both received and expended for 2016 to the present date. The numbers are rather all over the place. In 2016, the police picked up $320,000 in this manner. In 2017, the number was down significantly to $154,165,

The sums are not good tea leaves, to the extent that a lot of civil forfeiture in a given year doesn’t necessarily signal a commensurate amount of crime.

“These funds come to us in different ways via equitable sharing and could easily fluctuate on a case-by-case basis, spreading out over years,” says Pasadena Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Jason Clawson.

In other words, the money that has come in for 2019 could, ostensibly, be related to cases from two or three years ago.

Clawson explained that the police department’s percentage cut of forfeited assets rises and falls with the amount of work done on a case as compared to work done by other participating agencies.

The funds result from property seizures by the Pasadena Police Department through its participation with state and federal task forces.

“If a Pasadena Police Department narcotics team seizes $1 million dollars during an investigation, and the department is the only team in the case, Pasadena may receive up to 80 percent of those funds if seizure is granted.”

Similarly, an agent might be assigned to a case unfolding in another jurisdiction, but with a Pasadena angle, given the hydra-like qualities of the typical criminal narcotics syndicate. Pasadena’s force would be entitled to a small percentage share of any forfeiture that has been affected.

Clawson emphasized that disbursements are “in line with federal or state asset forfeiture guidelines and have a nexus to the vast work being done by law enforcement officers to combat criminal activity and the drug epidemic across Southern California.”

Guidelines for the permissible spending of shared funds is limited to law enforcement purposes, though monies cannot be used for departmental operating expenses.

Over the past two years, the Pasadena Police Department has spent the money on lease payments for undercover vehicles, wireless phone charges for narcotics teams, buying a narcotics dog, training for the same dog, and overtime payments for investigations, to name just a fraction of the items purchased.

The practice of civil forfeiture is not a hit with every American. City Councilmember John Kennedy, chairman of the public safety committee, said in an interview that he requested a report from staff on asset forfeiture at the prodding ACLU of Southern California Pasadena-Foothills Chapter Board Member Kris Ockershauser during committee meetings.

“I’ve been complaining about it for years,” Ockershauser told Pasadena Now.

The result is the report Chief Perez is presenting on March 20.

The Institute for Justice, a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm based in Arlington, Va., criticizes the fact government prosecutors need only tie the property to a crime by a “preponderance of evidence,” a standard it deems as “low” (as compared with, say, “beyond a reasonable doubt”). The Institute says it is unfair that innocent, third-party property owners must prove they had nothing to do with the alleged criminal activity.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a resolute member of the high court’s conservative wing, wrote an opinion critical of the practice in Lisa Olivia Leonard v. Texas.

Thomas noted that criminal defendants are entitled to specific procedural protections, but that U.S. law allows prosecutors to proceed to forfeiture against a criminal, by using a civil process.

“Partially as a result of this distinct legal regime,” Thomas wrote, “civil forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and profitable.”

Indeed, according to The Institute for Justice, the federal government’s use of forfeiture has “exploded” in recent years, “increasing by more than 1,000 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2014.”

During that period, the Institute said, deposits into forfeiture funds at the U.S. departments of Justice and Treasury totaled nearly $29 billion.

The “equitable sharing” arrangement under which Pasadena’s police force is rewarded with federal funds, paid out more than $4.7 billion between 2000 and 2013 in total to a number of agencies.

 

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