Attorney General Eric Holder announced he is terminating the Justice Department’s three-decade-old civil asset forfeiture program called Equitable Sharing that allowed state and local law enforcement agencies to keep 80% of cash, vehicles, real estate and other assets seized under federal drug laws before formal warrants or criminal charges were filed.
Holder’s action represents a huge rollback in the funding of local police participation in the federal “War on Drugs” launched during the Nixon Administration in 1971. Equitable Sharing empowered local and state police to make physical seizures from suspects and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, to share in the proceeds.
The policy is expected to impact 7,600 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments and task forces that made 55,000 confiscations worth $3 billion in the last 6 years.
Holder announced in a prepared statement, “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.”
The US Attorney General’s action does not limit what police can still do under their own state laws, but Equitable Sharing required most seizures to go directly to local cops. A number of states require assets seized under state law to go into the state’s general fund.
Holder’s announcement followed a series of Washington Post investigative articles published since September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists since the 9/11 attacks.
In Post’s a series of exposes titled, “Your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” the policy allows law enforcement’s perspective to force the owners to “prove” all the seized property was legally acquired in order to recover any assets.
Journalists documented from Justice Department data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests that “local and state police routinely pulled over drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressed them to agree to warrantless searches and seized large amounts of cash without evidence of wrongdoing.” The aggressive style of policing, called “highway interdiction,” involved authorities seizing money and property during routine traffic stops, that left thousands of people not indicted for criminal activity, but forced to fight protracted legal battles to regain their money and cars.
The Post found evidence that police were spending the confiscation proceeds with little oversight to buy luxury cars, assault weapons, military-grade gear and armored cars.
Ten Southern California law enforcement agencies have received and spent a combined $170 million from Equitable Sharing seizures since 2008. The list includes Los Angeles County Sheriff Department for $42,697,423; Los Angeles Police Department for $29,674,550; Regional Narcotics Suppression Program for $23,479,034; Anaheim Police Department for $17,743,334; San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for $12,536,223; Pomona Police Department for $9,573,795; San Diego Police Department for $9,179,270; Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department for $8,812,607; San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for $7,598,068; and L.A. Impact for $7,318,467.
According to National Public Radio, there has already been widespread push-back that Holder’s actions were “anti-cop” by groups representing victims’ rights and law enforcement. Critics say that depriving departments of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures will hurt legitimate efforts to fight crime, drug smuggling and terrorism.
“It seems like a continual barrage against police,” said John W. Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “I’m not saying there’s no wrongdoing, but there is wrongdoing in everything.”
Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said, “There is some grave concern about the possible loss of significant funding while local police and state police are being asked to do more and more each year.”
The political considerations for the new policy seem closely tied to the fact that 90% of illegal aliens/ undocumented immigrants never show up for court cases or claim seizures, according House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte.
Under the Obama Administration’s “Dreamers” policy that has recently been expanded to cover 5 million illegal aliens, undocumented immigrants will also be exempt from search and seizures laws.