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Feds curtail asset forfeiture gains from drug crimes charges

For many years, state and federal police agencies in California and throughout the nation have enjoyed a system of asset forfeiture in drug cases that has worked to their financial benefit. When a defendant is arrested on drug crimes, a separate asset forfeiture action is pursued, and the suspect's assets in certain instances may be summarily seized. The purpose of the expansive asset forfeiture procedure has been to take away the fruits of the drug criminal's illegal activities.

Part or all of the proceeds are then turned over to local and federal law enforcement agencies to continue their undercover activities and for other purposes. For decades, criminal defense attorneys have tried to fight these seizures because of their glaring unconstitutional deprivation of due process. Thus, assets could be seized without first proving in court either the guilt of the defendant or that the asset is really a fruit of drug crime.

Recently, however, Attorney General Eric Holder has recognized the illogical and sometimes oppressive results brought by such an irrational process. The announcement that the federal asset forfeiture program would be soft-peddled was criticized by law enforcement authorities, including in California. They charge that the change will hurt law enforcement's ability to continue to fight and shut down the big drug organizations.

That contention was disputed by numerous sources, including a former federal prosecutor who used to be in charge of forfeitures in Los Angeles. He said that the main parties to be hurt by the new procedure will be "those doing large amounts of improper seizures…" Opponents of the procedure also point out that it's unrealistic to believe that any large drug operations have been deactivated by asset forfeiture procedures.

Instead, opponents argue that law enforcement agencies have a vested interest in the program. For example, some agencies have used the proceeds from alleged drug crimes to increase officer overtime and other pay benefits. But the picture is not quite that bleak for police interests; state drug enforcement and undercover operations may still take advantage of the generous state forfeiture laws that still exist in California and virtually all jurisdictions.

Source:, "Watchdog: Police face new rules when seizing money from drug suspects", Tony Saavedra and Keegan Kyle, Jan. 20, 2015

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