Federal government reigns in civil forfeitures

The federal government has promised today to reign in civil forfeiture abuses. From the Washingon Post:

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 evidence that a crime occurred.

Holder says that today’s announcement is the first part of a broader review of the department’s asset forfeiture program.

This is great news and long overdue. Civil asset forfeitures are a huge problem in this country as they are a direct attack on fundamental property rights. In many jurisdictions, police treat citizens’ assets like their own personal piggy bank which they proceed to raid at will.

The timing of the announcement seems curious, given that  Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recently sent a letter to Holder asking him to review the federal policy. The Justice Department however says that discussions on asset forfeiture reform actually started late last year.

Many states have enacted curbs on civil forfeiture rules to address these abuses, but the Federal government has been undermining those curbs by allowing local police to turn over forfeited assets to the feds, who then share the proceeds with the local police. To quote the Post:

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

Pursuant to Holder’s announcement, federal agencies will no longer take possession of assets seized by local law enforcement, unless the property includes firearms or and other materials that concern public safety. The new policy will not cure all civil forfeiture abuses, but at least federal agencies will not actively circumvent state laws designed specifically to address these abuses.

There are exceptions to the new rule. Assets seized pursuant to a joint task force or a joint investigation or which are seized as part of a federal investigation or warrant are not prohibited by the new policy. Some of these exceptions open the door to abuse, too, since the use of joint task forces is widespread. However, the most egregious sorts of asset forfeitures, for example those which involve confiscating cash from random drivers, will be prohibited by the new federal policy. And in states without strict civil forfeiture guidelines, police can still seize property without the federal government’s assistance.

Eric Holder announced today that the Federal Government is discontinuing its controversial Equitable Sharing program. (Photo by United States Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eric Holder announced today that the Federal Government is discontinuing its controversial Equitable Sharing program. (Photo by United States Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

One of these states is Pennsylvania, where the largest city, Philadelphia, implemented under then-DA Lynne Abraham’s gleaming eye what is widely perceived to be the most egregious civil forfeiture machine in the country. The DA’s office runs the program and routinely seizes any property even remotely related to the smallest crime. The citizens then have to run through a complicated gamut in order to get their property back, and often fail to do so for purely technical or administrative reasons. The city rakes in vast amounts of cash with this program — about $6 million a year — and plows the money right into paying the salaries of the very DA’s office that manages the program. According to the Institute for Justice’s website dedicated to this issue:

In 2011 alone, the city’s prosecutors filed 6,560 forfeiture petitions to take cash, cars, homes and other property. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office used over $25 million of that $64 million to pay salaries, including the salaries of the very prosecutors who brought the forfeiture actions. This is almost twice as much as what all other Pennsylvania counties spent on salaries combined.

In August, the Institute of Justice filed a suit to halt the abuses of Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program. That case is still pending; however, in the appeal of a separate case in which an elderly woman’s home was confiscated because her son sold $180 of cannabis while staying in her home to care for her while she was ill, a judge ruled that the confiscation was unreasonable punishment. Meanwhile the DA has been forced to drop two cases due to public outrage.

And Philadelphia is not the only jurisdiction to see its civil forfeiture program come under attack from both the left and right. All over the country, lawsuits, editorials, and legislators are becoming increasingly critical of the many abuses of this law enforcement tool. It is almost as if civil forfeitures have become the new cannabis prohibition.

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