Attorney General Eric Holder already has a lengthy list of progressive accomplishments, but even as he eyes the exits at the Justice Department, he’s not done making important announcements. In fact, as the Washington Post reported, Holder’s news late Friday was one of the biggest of his tenure as A.G.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
At issue is something called “civil forfeiture” (or as some call it, “asset forfeiture”). It’s not exactly new – as Dara Lind noted last week, the practice “has been legal for a long time – during Prohibition, it was often used to seize bootleggers’ cars. But, like many other aggressive police tactics, it expanded radically during the 1980s with the rise of the war on drugs.”
The practice of law enforcement simply taking stuff believed to be used by suspected criminals – cash, cars, property, etc. – has turned into what Lind described as “a massive ‘slush fund’ for local cops.”
And it’s not just local police departments that have benefited. Billions of dollars in seized assets have been shared between federal and state agencies. Jamelle Bouie noted that the underlying idea – using criminals’ property to finance law enforcement nationwide – may sound compelling, but in practice, “it’s been a disaster,” in large part because “the vast majority of asset forfeiture happens with little oversight or accountability,” which has led to predictable abuses in a system in which the police can “confiscate property without due process.”
Indeed, as crazy as this may sound, the Washington Post reported last fall that through one civil-forfeiture program, police “made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion” from motorists – none of whom was charged with a crime – just since Sept. 11, 2001.
If the police take your money improperly, you can eventually get it back, but under the current system, you’ll have to hire an attorney to help you navigate the process and the burden will be on you to prove that your cash was obtained legally.
If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because John Oliver did a brilliant segment about this a few months ago.
Holder doesn’t have the authority to end the forfeiture programs altogether, but on Friday, he took a big step in the right direction. From Friday’s report:
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement.Holder’s decision allows limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
Better yet, congressional Republicans did not freak out in response to the news, despite their routine contempt for the Attorney General.
I think it’s fashionable in some circles to undervalue Holder’s tenure as A.G., but announcements like these reinforce my general belief that he’ll depart as one of the most accomplished and important Attorneys General in modern American history.