Justice Department Suspends Program Sharing Seized Criminal Assets with Local Police

Thursday, December 31, 2015
M. Kendall Day, chief of asset forfeiture and money laundering at Justice Dept.

A controversial federal program that has allowed local police to collect millions of dollars in seized assets has been suspended by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).


The Justice Department’s “equitable-sharing” program has allowed police to prosecute asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law, which often is more restrictive and less profitable for law enforcement. The federal program has permitted police to keep up to 80% of assets they seize, even when those they are taken from are never charged with a crime, according to The Washington Post. Police departments seize televisions, cars, cash and even houses under this program.


“Asset forfeiture has become an increasingly contentious practice in recent years. It lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted — and in many cases, never charged — with wrongdoing,” the Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote. “Recent reports have found that the use of the practice has exploded in recent years, prompting concern that, in some cases, police are motivated more by profits and less by justice.”


Justice officials said they were not canceling the program, but according to a letter (pdf) only suspending it for budget reasons, so it could be reinstituted. It reportedly has lost $1.2 billion because of budget cuts and other reasons.


The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has investigated the assets forfeiture practice, hailed the decision to suspend the program. “This is a significant deal,” 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.”


Research by the Institute for Justice revealed police rely on the federal program more when state laws are more restrictive about what assets may be seized. California law, for example, allows police to keep 66.25% of forfeiture proceeds. But the federal government’s program allows departments to keep 80%, giving police little incentive to use state laws.


-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Justice Department Just Shut Down a Huge Asset Forfeiture Program (by Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post)

Justice Department Suspends Abusive Asset Forfeiture Program – For Now (by Ilya Somin, Washington Post)

DOJ Suspends Asset Seizure Sharing; Value of Seized Property Exceeds That of Stolen Property (by Joe Wolverton, II, J.D., New American)

Letter to Law Enforcement Agencies (U.S. Department of Justice) (pdf)

For the First Time, Law Enforcement Takes more Property from Americans than Burglars Do (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Seizing Citizens’ Property as a Revenue Source for Law Enforcement (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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