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Behind the Badge Setting the record straight on asset forfeiture laws

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Posted: Monday, November 7, 2011 12:00 am

There seems to be numerous misunderstandings and urban legends regarding law enforcement’s use of our state and federal asset forfeiture laws.

Asset forfeiture laws were designed to attack drug dealers financially. The intent was that drug dealers should not be allowed to keep monies made while selling illegal drugs.

The laws were also designed for the drug dealers to forfeit property such as cars or homes purchased with drug money. These laws have evolved over the years to include what is called “criminal profiteering,” meaning those that profit from crimes such as embezzlement, forgery, bribery, extortion, money laundering, etc., face a seizure of their profits.  

There seems to be a misconception that law enforcement as a whole seizes money, cars, homes, etc., and that we get to keep the money or profits from sale to supplement our budgets or that we get to use things such as seized vehicles for our own benefit. This is not necessarily the case.

The Lodi Police Department maintains both a state and federal asset forfeiture program. This requires detailed accounting, extensive ongoing training, and cooperation with our local and federal prosecuting agencies.

As part of Lodi PD’s program, asset forfeiture investigators receive initial training as well as yearly updates through the California District Attorney’s Association and California commission on Police Officer Standards and Training. We work closely with both the San Joaquin county District Attorney’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s office and are required to keep specific accounting records of monies or property seized.

In order to seize vehicles or real property, the suspect must be in possession of a minimum amount of specific controlled substances possessed for sales. This places the burden on law enforcement to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect possessed the controlled substances with the intent of sales. If we along with the district attorney’s office are unable to prove the sales of a controlled substance, we must return the suspect’s money and/or property, ensuring that it has not lost value. The police department is not allowed to use the seized property, and it must be sold. 

What makes these investigations unique is that they are civil in nature and prosecuted separately from the criminal case. Upon securing a judgment, the money is divided between several entities by statute.

Sixty-five percent goes to the agency initiating the seizure. Fifteen percent of that total must be used specifically for gang and drug prevention.  Twenty-four percent goes to the State of California General Fund. Ten percent goes to the prosecuting District Attorney’s office. One percent goes to the California District Attorney’s Association to pay for ongoing law enforcement training.

While these funds assist law enforcement in their criminal investigations, they are not designed to supplement existing budgets. Using these monies is strictly controlled by state statute to prevent misuse. That being said, Asset Forfeiture remains a valuable tool for law enforcement to use to combat illicit drug sales in our community.

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