Assemblyman Jim Cooper

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, authored an assembly bill that would allow Elk Grove law enforcement to confiscate houses where marijuana was illegally grown.

The assembly’s Public Safety Committee on April 17 reviewed Assembly Bill 3208, but they did not vote to advance that proposal to another committee.

Cooper described the bill as a way to discourage criminal organizations from buying Elk Grove houses and growing large amounts of marijuana inside them.

“These are organized crime folks, this is not a mom-and-pop operation,” he said. “This is an option to deal with it and hit these folks where it hurts.”

Under AB 3208, the state would temporarily allow Elk Grove city officials to conduct civil forfeiture on marijuana houses until 2024. Property owners would also be notified and given the option of challenging the city’s forfeiture.

Elk Grove city law prohibits the commercial cultivation and retail sale of marijuana. California’s Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana use but residents cannot grow more than six plants inside their homes.

The Public Safety Committee heard support from the Elk Grove police as well as opposition from activists and lobbyists who argued that the bill could enable police to abuse their powers.

Elk Grove Police Capt. Tim Albright said that his staff dismantled hundreds of marijuana houses over the past 12 years, only to see them reappear on new streets. He mentioned they uncovered 40 houses alone last year.

 “(AB 3208) will provide law enforcement a very valuable tool to protect our residents and the quality of life in our city,” he said.

Elk Grove Police Chief Bryan Noblett told the Citizen that his staff did not request the bill from Cooper.

In his introduction, Cooper told the committee about Elk Grove’s history of investigators uncovering large marijuana operations in residential neighborhoods. He said that 75 percent of marijuana plants illegally grown indoors in California last year came from the Greater Sacramento region.

The Assemblyman mentioned cases where firefighters discovered marijuana grown in houses that were illegally wired to power ultraviolet grow lights.  

He also noted this month’s massive operation where the U.S. Attorney’s Office used the civil forfeiture process to seize more than 100 marijuana houses, including 16 Elk Grove houses, in the Sacramento region.  Investigators determined that criminals in China funded the home purchases and the marijuana operations.

Faye Wilson Kennedy, the co-founder of the Southeast Village Neighborhood Association, told the committee about her experience of learning about the FBI raiding marijuana houses in her Sacramento neighborhood.

“I was shocked, but not surprised,” she said, adding that the two houses were near a park and a community garden.

Opponents of AB 3208 claimed that it’s an attempt to circumvent 2016’s Senate Bill 443, which prevents authorities from keeping seized assets from a suspect, regardless of whether that suspect was convicted.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described that bill as a way to halt “theft by cop” incidents in California.

“(AB 3208) breathes new life into civil forfeiture,” said Mica Doctoroff, a legislative advocate for the ACLU. “(It’s) a remnant of the failed War on Drugs.”

She also said that the civil forfeiture process particularly hit low-income and non-white communities, “since they’re likely to carry cash.”  

Ellen Komp of the marijuana law reform group, California NORML, echoed the ACLU’s concerns.

“If we start opening up for cities and counties to do forfeiture at the local level, then we’re going to see terrible abuses,” she said.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer Sr., the chair of the Public Safety Committee, agreed that civil forfeiture might be an effective tool against marijuana crime and he mentioned that numerous marijuana houses were uncovered at his Assembly district in Los Angeles.

“We will eventually get to an effective program of getting rid of illegal (operations),” he said.

AB 3208 stalled at his committee since none of its members called for a motion to approve the bill. Cooper’s spokesperson Skyler Wonnacott said the bill is done for the current legislative session.

Cooper could not be reached for comment, as of press time.