...by Mark Drake
Some significant reforms of forfeiture law were recently passed at the federal level. Rep. Hyde's rather good House bill was watered down in the Senate, but as finally passed, still provides for:|
1) A shift in the burden of proof from the citizen (to prove the property is innocent as the driven snow) to the government (to establish by a "preponderance of evidence" that it was criminally involved);
2) A court-appointed lawyer for indigent defendants; and
3) Return of the custody of the property during adjudication in case of hardship.
The new law goes into effect this August. (No thanks, by the way, to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who co-sponsored a competing bill which would have made things even worse instead of supporting positive reform.)
Back in Sacramento, State Sen. John Lewis (R, Orange Co.) has introduced SB 2106, which would help conform California law to the new federal provisions, allowing for return of property in case of hardship and making the State responsible for damage to property occurring while it's in government custody. Also, Sen. John Vasconcellos (D, San Jose) has proposed SB 1866, which would take all the fun out of forfeiture for the cops by providing that the loot would go to the State treasury, instead of directly to police and prosecutors. Expect well-financed screams of indignation over this one!
And down at the municipal level, several cities have passed laws enabling themselves to confiscate and cash out vehicles used by patrons of drug dealers or prostitutes. Oakland recently lost such a case in which it tried to forfeit a $5000 truck from a driver nailed for agreeing to buy two grams of weed from undercover cops. Fortunately, Oakland is appealing the verdict, which sets them up to have their law overturned on constitutional grounds, and such a decision could be used to attack other such local laws. (See California NORML Reports, April 2000, for more details.)
And finally, closure on the case of Donald Scott, who was shot dead in his own Ventura County home by a multi-agency task force looking to forfeit his valuable ranch eight years ago. (They guessed wrong - there was no sign of marijuana on the site.) Scott's estate settled out of court recently for $5 million from the feds and L.A. County.