Atty. Gen. Holder Restricts Federal Involvement in Police Seizure of Cash and Property from Alleged Drug Crimes

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Eric Holder (photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced an end in most cases to local law enforcement agencies’ ability to confiscate cash, houses, jewelry and other valuables from suspects without trial or even a warrant under a federal program.

 

The Justice Department program called “Equitable Sharing” was part of the War on Drugs and allowed police departments to confiscate personal property deemed to be connected with a drug crime, share a fraction of it with the federal government and keep the balance for use within the department. Because the program did not require police to prove any connection between the property owners and any criminal act, it was, from the beginning, open to law enforcement abuse.

 

Since 1984, law enforcement agencies have used the program to fund departments, buy military-style equipment or in one case, hire a clown for a party. Other agencies have used seized assets to fund wiretaps of other suspects to bring in still more cash. Holder’s move ended the program except where firearms, child pornography or a few other items are involved.

 

The Washington Post brought this practice to light with a series of stories last year that documented cases of innocent travelers being shaken down for cash and jewelry. Some jurisdictions, such as the Philadelphia Police Department, specialized in taking houses belonging to relatives of those convicted of drug possession.

 

Now departments that want to seize property will have to do so under state statutes, which often require the forfeited property to go into a general fund or be used for a specific purpose, such as education. That should lessen the incentive for departments to continue the seizures.

 

“It’s high time we put an end to this damaging practice,” David Harris, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Post. “It has been a civil-liberties debacle and a stain on American criminal justice.”

 

Disapproval of the seizures has been one of the few things that those on both sides of the aisle in Congress have been able to agree on. Earlier this month, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisconsin) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) signed a letter calling on Holder to end the program. After Holder’s announcement Friday, Grassley told the Post, “We’re going to have a fairer justice system because of it. The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people.”

 

The program was particularly insidious because the action was taken against the property, not against its owners. Thus, those affected had little recourse to get their property returned without proving they had obtained it by legal means. Often, attorney and court fees outweighed the value of the seized items.

-Steve Straehley

 

To Learn More:

Holder Limits Seized-Asset Sharing Process That Split Billions With Local, State Police (by Robert O’Harrow Jr., Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich, Washington Post)

Attorney General Holder Announces Biggest Asset Forfeiture Program Reform in Years (by Phillip Smith, AlterNet)

Asset Forfeiture and the Cycle of Electronic Surveillance Funding (by Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Feds Tell Nation’s Cops to Stop Illegally Seizing Motorists’ Property…But Only if they Want To (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Police Departments Like to Seize Fancy Cars and Cash…Computers and Jewelry Not So Much (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Across U.S., Police Asset Seizures Fuel ”Slush Fund” for Buying Weapons, Luxury Cars, Travel…and Even a Clown (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Local Governments Increase Revenue by Seizing Property Belonging to those not Charged with Crimes (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Taken (by Sarah Stillman, New Yorker)

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