How much cash can police seize from citizens in California?

Public outcry raged across the web after a UC Berkeley police officer is seen in a now-viral video taking a hot vendor's money from his wallet.

Public outcry raged across the web after a UC Berkeley police officer is seen in a now-viral video taking a hot vendor's money from his wallet.

The University of California said Monday it will investigate a police officer's decision to confiscate a vendor's money for selling bacon hot dogs on a Berkeley sidewalk without a permit. University Police Sgt. Sabrina Reich said the officer cited the vendor for operating without a license and the money was seized as evidence of the "suspected proceeds of the violation." UC officials said the officer seized $60.

ABC10 received many comments on Facebook, from people debating whether or not taking the vendor's money was a legal move. 

So let's take a look at the law:

Controversial civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize assets and cash from citizens in the U.S. without any convictions or even any charges. Current civil forfeiture laws date back to the "War on Drugs" era in the 1980s. The laws were intended to limit resources for drug cartels and organized-crime groups. 

Two years ago, the Obama administration barred local and state agencies from using the federal government to seize cash and property without criminal charges or warrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rolled back those changes.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue this practice is police abuse of potentially innocent citizens who haven't been charged or convicted of a crime. After assets, such as cars, boats or even real estate are seized, police have the right to keep or sell it. According to the organization, police use seized money and assets to make bottom lines, making the practice for-profit. 

California has long had laws in place to protect property owners from "cop theft." But earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-443, making significant changes to the state laws pertaining to civil asset forfeiture. Until recently, the laws required a criminal conviction before property or cash under $25,000 could be forfeited to the government. To forfeit cash above $25,000, law enforcement had to present a compelling evidence. The government was also responsible for proving an individual knew property was illegally used.

However, local and state agencies have the option of collaborating with federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to forfeit assets and cash. This process is known as "equitable sharing", or the Equitable Sharing Program. The practice allows state or local agencies to pass cases up to the federal government and allows the collaborating groups to share seized property. In fact, the federal government funnels back up to 80 percent of the proceeds to the local and state agencies to benefit from.

The discrepancy between state and federal government created what many civil rights experts call an abuse loophole. 

In 2014, The Washington Post published an explosive investigation which found, there had been more than 60,000 cash seizures on highways and other places since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through equitable sharing, totaling to more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of the cash seized during that time.

Many of the forfeitures went unchallenged because of the financial expenses that come with going to court against the government.

In January, SB 433 went into effect with the intention to close this loophole by requiring a criminal conviction before agencies could receive equitable-sharing payments from forfeits for property or cash under $40,000. Also, the law increased the threshold for seizing cash with a criminal conviction under state law to $40,000.

According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), half of all properties forfeited under equitable sharing were valued at less than $8,920, pocket change to criminal organizations. IJ ranked California as the second worst state for its civil asset forfeiture laws, with more than 65 percent of forfeiture proceeds going to law enforcement.

With the recently passed SB 433, that rank may change. 

As for the hot dog vendor case, it seems under current state law the officer didn't have legal grounds to seize the $60 from the man's wallet since it is well under the $40,000 threshold. The man received a citation, but not a criminal conviction, for selling food without a permit. 

© 2017 KXTV-TV


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