21 Feb 19
A ruling from the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday will protect the money and property of people who have seen their assets seized by law enforcement agencies.
The unanimous ruling, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, found that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fees and fines applies not just to the federal government but to state and local governments as well.
“The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause,” the ruling states. “The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates and renders applicable to the States Bill of Rights protections ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ or ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.’ The prohibition embodied in the Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from the Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties.”
The decision stemmed from a case in Indiana in which a man who was convicted of selling about $400 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer, also had a $40,000 vehicle seized. The vehicle had been purchased with money from a life insurance policy following the death of the plaintiff’s father.
The trial court ruled the seizure of a vehicle purchased with legal funds was excessive, a ruling overturned by the Indiana State Supreme Court. The case was then taken on by the Supreme Court resulting in Tuesday’s ruling because the vehicle was worth more than four times the maximum fine the plaintiff would face and was deemed excessive and disproportionate.
Locally, the ruling may not have much of an impact despite regular asset seizures by the Humboldt County Drug Task Force and that is due to changes in state law enacted in 2016.
In September 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 443, which tightened the rules under which state and local law enforcement agencies can seize money and property.
Previous to the passage of SB 443, law enforcement agencies could seize assets regardless of whether a suspect had been convicted of a crime and then used a federal sharing percentage that allowed agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the assets seized.
“Say that I stop you at a traffic stop and you have a few thousand dollars in the car; I can’t just keep that money and use it,” said Lt. Michael Fridley, special operations supervisor with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. “Now, we have to provide you information on what we seized and how you can get it back and if you can demonstrate to the court you got it legally, you get it back. We can’t take people’s money and keep it.”
Fridley said 25 years ago when marijuana eradication was the primary goal, local authorities would seize property connected to grows, something that was addressed by SB 443. If the amount of money seized during an investigation is less than $40,000, it must be held until there is a conviction and no real property such as vehicles or houses can be seized.
“We did a lot of work where we took cars and stuff — we used to take people’s property,” Fridley said. “Now, if I take your vehicle following that traffic stop, I have to store it, keep it in the same operating condition as when it was seized. It can’t be inoperable or disabled, left outside with the brakes frozen. We don’t have the space to store those vehicles nor the time and effort to maintain them.”
According to an annual report issued by the California Attorney General’s Office, in 2017 Humboldt County reported 55 asset forfeitures had been completed with just under $870,000 disbursed to the California District Attorney’s Association, the Humboldt County District Attorney, the local Drug Task Force and the state’s General Fund.
The DA, for example, received about $96,000 in funds from seizures and according to District Attorney Maggie Fleming, the amount of money the office received fluctuates because it’s generally based on drug-trafficking investigations.
“The money we receive from asset forfeiture exhibits a lot of annual variation because it is often strongly influenced by a few drug cases,” Fleming said. “Each county is responsible for its asset forfeiture activities. The California District Attorneys Association provides ethical guidelines and keeps counties informed on the relevant law.”
Fleming added that assets seized locally won’t be impacted by the ruling.
“The recent Supreme Court case does not apply to asset forfeitures in Humboldt County. The key difference is that the recent Supreme Court case included evidence that the asset in question was legally obtained, while Humboldt County only seeks forfeiture of assets obtained through illegal activity. Here the asset forfeiture process ends whenever defendants can show the assets were legally obtained,” Fleming said. “However, the ruling makes sense to me. I think assets legally obtained should remain apart from the criminal justice process unless they are needed to cover reasonable fines linked to criminal activity.”
You can read the text of the Supreme Court ruling at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1091_5536.pdf.
Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.