By Teri Sforza / Staff Columnist
Dec. 6, 2016 – Updated 10:50 p.m.

Law enforcement seized nearly $2.6 billion worth of airplanes, houses, cash, jewelry, cars and other items from suspected wrongdoers last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

It was the biggest one-year haul by federal, state and local police agencies since 2011, and it occurred even as the practice is coming under growing criticism.

The program – technically known as asset forfeiture – was created amid the 1980s’ “war on drugs” with the best of intentions: to reduce crime by depriving drug traffickers, racketeers and criminal syndicates of their ill-gotten gains.

But critics charge that allowing law enforcement to reap financial reward from such seizures creates perverse incentives, encouraging the pursuit of property over the impartial administration of justice.

Reformers have described the practice with pejoratives like “policing for profit” and “theft by cop.”

After expenses are deducted, much of the proceeds from seized and forfeited booty wind up in the coffers of state and local police departments, sometimes even when the owners were never convicted of crimes. The money helps pay police salaries, fund operations and investigations, and buy equipment.

Deposits in: Over five years, seizures in states working with the federal government’s asset forfeiture program pumped nearly $14.2 billion into the fund. Operations in California contributed $854.5 million.

Money out: Over those same five years, the states’ “equitable share” of the booty was $2.5 billion. California’s cut: $410.9 million.

Here in the Golden State, police agencies in Southern California got the most money back from the federal government. Agencies in Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties topped the list.

That’s not coincidence, said Cindy Bachman of the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner’s office. “Illicit proceeds are funneled south to Mexico by drug trafficking organizations, and it is routinely consolidated in the greater Los Angeles area before making its way out of the country,” she said by email.

Soon, that could change. A new state law seeks to choke off more seizure money, reducing police incentives to seize property, as do bills pending in Congress. More on that in a minute.

GUILTY UNTIL …

Landlord Tony Jalali owned a commercial building in Anaheim. He rented space to a dental office, an insurance company and two medical marijuana dispensaries.

The dispensaries were legal under state law, but unwelcome in the city. In 2012, Anaheim police teamed up with federal prosecutors and seized Jalali’s building, saying it was linked to criminal activity.

A suspected link – not proof of guilt in a court of law – can be enough under federal civil forfeiture law. Jalali faced the loss of his property, worth some $1.5 million, despite never being charged with a crime. The nonprofit Institute for Justice in Virginia took up Jalali’s case pro bono, and after more than a year in federal court, the government dropped the case.

But not everyone who gets caught in the system is so lucky.

“People need to understand that civil forfeiture occurs without any criminal charges or convictions,” said Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research for the Institute for Justice, which is pushing for reforms.

To read expanded article, click here.