Making an interim policy permanent, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton has strengthened rules governing civil asset forfeitures, the seizure by law enforcement agencies of cash and other property primarily from drug trafficking and sales suspects.

Becton said last week that the changes include requiring civil asset forfeitures be tied to a filed criminal case. That means no more property seizures can target suspects against whom charges have not been filed.

Property subject to such seizures is usually regarded as that used to help facilitate drug trafficking or sales, items acquired in exchange for drugs or items acquired with “proceeds traceable” to illegal drug activity. That latter category can include cars and homes knowingly purchased with money derived through illegal drug activity.

Seizing property from people who ultimately are not charged with a crime, some critics have said, is unfair and an abuse of law enforcement power. A 2010 report by the Institute for Justice describes such seizures as “one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today,” and can “dangerously shift law enforcement priorities … toward the pursuit of property and profit.”

“The community rightfully has tremendous concerns about the use of the civil asset forfeiture process by law enforcement,” Becton said in a statement. “I have listened to the concerns and instituted this new policy on a permanent basis. We must only use civil asset forfeiture when absolutely necessary and in conjunction with a criminal case.”

Another change is that the amount of property seized must be worth at least $1,000 for the district attorney’s office to consider civil asset forfeiture. Before the interim policy was adopted by Becton’s office in June 2019, that amount had been $500.

Also, any law enforcement agency seeking to seize property must serve a “Notice of Non-Judicial Forfeiture Proceedings” and a “Claim Opposing Forfeiture” with anyone who has, or may have, an interest in the seized property. Those notices also now must be translated into multiple languages, including Spanish and Mandarin.