Leading the Charge: NMA E-Newsletter #619

We like clever wordplay as much as the next guy. The double entendre of the title, however, stirs an emotion stronger and more negative than “like.”

Christopher Matthew Spencer, one of our most active members in Southern California, led the charge by submitting a public records request to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (LADA). He had strong suspicions about the unethical use of funds seized by the county under state civil asset forfeiture statutes.

His October 2020 request sought:

“(A) List of expenses relating to all promotions, conferences, events, functions, and so forth that was spent by the DA’s office to promote and hold their asset forfeiture seminars. For a period of 36 months.”

Spencer’s action was triggered by the knowledge that such seminars cost over $100 per hour of DA’s staff time to organize. As he wryly notes, “There are plenty of ways for the government to (appear to) reduce cost.”

It took Christopher Matthew 45 days to get a response to his records request because of claims by LADA that they “didn’t pay anything.” Only through persistently aggressive follow up by Spencer did the stonewalling crumble.

LADA’s response was careful to note that “No taxpayer dollars are used to promote and hold asset forfeiture seminars. The training is funded with assets seized and forfeited in accordance with Health and Safety Code Section 11489(b)(2). Under the law, 1% of assets seized and forfeited shall be distributed to “a private nonprofit organization composed of local prosecutors which shall use  these funds for the exclusive purpose of providing a statewide program of education and training for prosecutors and law enforcement officers in ethics and the proper use of laws permitting the seizure and forfeiture of assets under this chapter.”

With that, LADA produced records that showed that it knew how to lead the monetary charge. LADA entered into an agreement with the Los Angeles County Prosecutors Association (CPA) through which the CPA would provide reimbursement for associated costs. That reimbursement ostensibly fell within the 1% rule of using seized assets from citizens, of which motorists are particularly vulnerable, to conduct such training.

Among the records that Spencer received were those related to a March 14 – 16, 2018 “Asset Forfeiture Summit for Law Enforcement Executives” at the luxurious Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in Dana Point, CA. Was the ethics clause of 11489(b)(2) served by charging over $88,000 worth of rooms and catering at an out-of-county luxury resort? The Marriott provided some credits to the overall charges, but the fact remains that property seized by law enforcement was used to fund posh seminars designed to teach participants how to optimize the handling of forfeitures.

We’ve seen this playbook before. LADA/CPA hold lavish asset forfeiture seminars for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies that are supported financially by property seizures that often occur without the property owners being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hands out annual enforcement grants to the states based in large part on how many tickets a given state issued the year before. In other words, the states are encouraged to conduct ticket quota campaigns to get more government funding to run revenue-producing ticket quota operations.

Is it any wonder that the NMA’s agenda in Washington DC continues to be the reform of civil asset forfeiture laws and the elimination of government-funded ticket-quota incentives? In both cases, the systems feed on themselves, enriching government agencies while targeting the public for sanctioned abuse.

Spencer reached out to Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger as well as Deputy District Attorney Joseph Iniguez to seek answers and ask for an investigation into the asset forfeiture seminars. “I recommended to the DA’s office that instead of enriching the owners of luxury resorts and fancy restaurants, they could use legally retained proceeds from seizure activities to rent high school auditoriums to conduct seminars. We’ve heard over and over again how schools across the nation are suffering budget crises. The $88,310.63 spent at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa would help educate a lot of school children—the DA can pay school districts for the use of their idle spaces for these events,” he added.

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