The news went largely overlooked shortly before last week’s holiday break, but the Justice Department made a pretty important announcement about one of the more problematic policies in the criminal-justice system. The Washington Post reported:
The Department of Justice announced this week that it’s suspending a controversial program that allows local police departments to keep a large portion of assets seized from citizens under federal law and funnel it into their own coffers.The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize – even if the people they took from are never charged with a crime.
“This is a significant deal,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice, told the Post. “Local law enforcement responds to incentives. And it’s clear that one of the biggest incentives is the relative payout from federal versus state forfeiture. And this announcement by the DOJ changes the playing field for which law state and local [law enforcement] is going to prefer.”
Nearly a year ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder took some initial steps to curtail civil-forfeiture programs, but this latest move was less the result of policy preferences and more a result of fiscal concerns: Congress cut the Justice Department’s budget.
Nevertheless, we’re talking about a status quo in which law enforcement takes and often keeps “cash and property from people who are never convicted – and in many cases, never charged – with wrongdoing.” And at least for now, this practice will be less common.
If you need a refresher on what civil forfeiture is all about, we last discussed the policy in January. The idea began in earnest during Prohibition, but its scope expanded greatly during the “war on drugs” in the 1980s.
The practice of law enforcement simply taking stuff believed to be used by suspected criminals – cash, cars, property, etc. – has turned into what Vox 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. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explained a while back 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.”
If the police take your money improperly through civil forfeiture, 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 in October 2014.