January 16, 2015

Holder Announces Change to Asset Forfeiture Program, But is it Enough?

Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has essentially ended a federal program that allowed local law enforcement agencies across the country to share in civil asset forfeitures when cooperating in federal investigations. By way of the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing program, local and federal law enforcement agencies have legally stolen nearly 3 billion dollars from Americans, typically motorists suspected of transporting drugs, without charging them with a crime since September 11, 2001.

“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,” Holder said in a statement. According to an anonymous Justice Department employee, Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

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.

Though Holder’s decision allows for some limited circumstances where the profit-sharing program would continue to function (illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography), today’s decision will eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

A secret partnership

In recent years more and more local law enforcement agencies have been participating in the Equitable Sharing program by permanently assigning personnel to work as liaisons with various federal agencies, including the FBI, DEA, US Marshal’s Service, IRS, HIDTA and more. These “detached” local officers work under federal jurisdiction, carry federal credentials and participate in investigations and raids. Because these task forces are run like for-profit entities, all agencies involved get a sizable cut of any forfeitures made during the course of an investigation. However,  Holder’s order today does not prohibit these types of seizures, as it excepts seizures in which there is federal task force participation or direction.

In a 2010 study titled Policing for Profit, the Institute for Justice exposed these types of programs as being little more than a way for law enforcement agencies to legally pilfer and plunder the possessions of innocent citizens, taking what they want and leaving the victim with little or no recourse

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