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PD Editorial: Supreme Court draws the line on asset forfeiture

Rohnert Park police are defendants in two lawsuits accusing officers of improperly seizing marijuana from motorists while patrolling Highway 101 near the Mendocino County line - about an hour's drive from Rohnert Park.

Neither plaintiff was charged with or convicted of a crime.

Those lawsuits, which have yet to be adjudicated, weren't at issue when the U.S. Supreme Court took up the practice of civil asset forfeiture - seizures money and other valuables from people suspected of criminal activity, even if they're never arrested or charged. But the court's ruling last week is a welcome step toward ending a practice that critics call “policing for profit.”

The justices didn't outlaw asset seizures, which are intended to prevent criminals from enjoying their ill-gotten gains.

But they unanimously concluded that the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against excessive fines applies to state and local government.

“Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. … Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

That's pretty clearly the case with Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man who brought the issue to the Supreme Court.

Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. He was sentenced to a year of house arrest and fined $1,200. In a separate proceeding, with a lower standard of evidence, authorities seized his $42,000 Land Rover SUV, which he bought using money from his father's life insurance.

Timbs can now argue that the penalty was grossly disproportionate to his crime, and, it seems to us, he could prevail.

At least Timbs was convicted of a crime. In many instances, police seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables without an arrest or conviction.

The liberal Bader-Ginsburg wrote last week's opinion, but her conservative colleague Clarence Thomas pressed his colleagues to take up the issue two years ago, citing examples of police taking money and other assets with little or no justification.

Seizures are popular with law enforcement agencies because some of the money comes back to bolster their budgets. Local police and prosecutors around the country received $400 million from joint operations with their federal counterparts in 2018, according to a New York Times report. State and local seizures add untold millions.

A Press Democrat investigation last year found that the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department seized more than $2.4 million in cash and other valuables between 2015 and 2018, substantially more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County. Records show that the city kept about $1.2 million seized in 2016 and 2017.

By requiring the penalty to fit the crime, the Supreme Court's is giving judges some clarity for handling asset forfeiture cases. That's a step in the right direction. So was a California law, enacted in 2016, that requires a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases involving assets valued at up to $40,000.

But state lawmakers should consider going a step further and, consistent with the presumption of innocence, requiring a conviction in any asset forfeiture case.

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