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Report: Police Asset Seizures Disproportionately Affect Minorities, Poor Californians

Money in a plastic bag being placed in an envelope.
Photographerlondon /
Money in a plastic bag being placed in an envelope.

Report: Police Asset Seizures Disproportionately Affect Minorities, Poor Californians
Report: Police Asset Seizures Disproportionately Affect Minorities, Poor Californians GUEST:Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, criminal justice and drug policy director, American Civil Liberties Union of California

Our top story on midday edition the federal civil asset forfeiture program established in the 1980s allows the government to seize cash and property from drug suspects or for any conviction or arrest is made. People can see law enforcement for return of their property but attorneys say that the process is usually long and expensive. Now, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union finds it in California minorities and the poor are disproportionately affect the by that program. Joining me is Margaret Dooley-Sammuli , Criminal Justice adn drug policy director with the ACLU of California. Welcome. Thank you. SDPD says they have not had time to read the ACLU's report. So, Margaret, the ACLU found that most of the seizures are happening in poor communities and communities of color, tell us more about that. Writes. So what we found is that law enforcement in communities of color, that is communities where more than half of the population are non-Hispanic, they are not Hispanic whites, they collect a whopping 85% of all federal asset forfeiture proceeds in the entire state so where we have seen in other police practices, a disproportionate impact on people of color, we would have expected that the number of seizures of people of color would be increase, what I did not expect to see was that we're actually seeing more wealth, more money coming's out of those communities than wealthier, wider communities. Almost half of the drug enforcement seizures are from people in California with Latino surnames. Is that right? That is right. We looked at four months with a forfeiture notices from the federal government and those include people's names and we identified that nearly half of those, right at 50%, were people who had Latino surnames. The DA says the pattern of seizures reflects the fight against members of Latin American drug cartel members that is an answer the question of why so many Latino surnames? Absolutely not. Many people that we talked to describe what happened to them. It is often a routine traffic stop where officers asked to search the vehicle, people agree because they have done nothing wrong, then law enforcement finds cash and takes it. Another trend that we found is officers actually asking the driver where passengers directly whether they are carrying cash and people answer honestly because they have not done anything wrong and they lose their cash. So, this affects people from all walks of life but we did find several stories, people who operate cash-based businesses who have lost payroll or income for the day including a taco truck driver, a music promoter, and a person working for a janitorial company. These are clearly not drug kingpin's. So if the people who have properties these were not convicted of a crime, but not even charged with a crime, why is it difficult to get property back? Knife that -- You have to fight the government in court. This is a daunting process that many people are afraid to engage in order is too complicated for them, the process is not obvious. You have to hire your own attorney and often the amount seized, although a significant sum for the people it is taken from, it is not it is less than it would cost to pay an attorney to fight to get it back. So in many cases people are afraid, unable, or economically impossible. In the ACLU report how to law enforcement agencies in San Diego County stack up against others across California? What we saw from San Diego County is a higher number of seizures over the last decade and a half. That does make sense that we are on the border, but the -- we account for, the county as accounting for all the assets seized in the state and local law enforcement agencies are benefiting of course, anywhere where you have a lot of asset which are going on/asset forfeiture is going on the opportunity is right. Several years ago California changed our state law to strengthen property protections, what immediately began to occur is that local law enforcement began to partner with federal agencies to circumvent state law and state poverty protection to use federal law which has very low property protection. Is there any move that would tighten is that so that so many people would not fall victim to this kind of confiscation? Absolutely. There is legislation pending in Sacramento right now, introduced by Senator. Hollie Mitchell that co-authored and supported by Senator Joel Anderson, Senator. Hadley, Republicans, that would require law enforcement to not collect the proceeds from anyone unless there is an underlying conviction. You have to actually prove that someone has broken the law before you can take their property. Unfortunately, it is facing a big battle, the only opposition this bill has is from agencies that benefit financially. I am sorry I have to and it there, I have been speaking with Margaret Dooley-Sammuli with the ACLU of California and we are still waiting for a response from San Diego law enforcement. Margaret thank you for your time. Thank you.

The American Civil Liberties Union of California published a report Thursday that examines California law enforcement agencies' use of the federal government's asset forfeiture program.

The report says local police use federal law to keep people's property, even when they have done nothing wrong.

“Civil asset forfeiture has allowed for rampant abuse, exploitation, and marginalization of low-income communities and people of color,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, criminal justice and drug policy director with the ACLU of California in a statement. “California police are padding their budgets with innocent Californians’ hard-earned money and property.”

The ACLU found that 85 percent of proceeds from federal asset forfeiture in California go to law enforcement agencies in communities with a majority of people of color.

KPBS media partner inewsource reported that between 2007 and 2014 San Diego County law enforcement seized money and assets related to drug trafficking totaling more than $30 million.

In a statement sent to KPBS, the San Diego Sheriff's Department said none of the alleged cases of abuse in ACLU's report involved a law enforcement agency from San Diego County.

The statement also said:

"It is well-known that crime is higher in low-income communities — as a result, a majority of our enforcement efforts are concentrated in those areas to limit the victimization of the many law-abiding citizens who live there. Therefore it is not surprising that seizures are more prevalent in those areas, because drug activity is more prevalent there."

Dooley-Sammuli discusses the report's findings on Midday Edition Thursday.