In January 2015, before leaving his position, former Attorney General Eric Holder appeared to do something honorable: He announced that state and local officials would no longer be allowed to use federal law to seize private property such as cash or cars without evidence that a crime was committed.
While Holder did not end the program – called “equitable sharing” – entirely, his limits were the first ever to be placed on the program in its three-decade existence. This seemed to be a positive change, especially considering that asset forfeiture has more than doubled under Obama.
Civil asset forfeiture is, simply put, the government stealing your property – including but not limited to cash, jewelry, cars, and even homes – without charging or convicting you with a crime.
The feds’ equitable sharing program allows police to take property from citizens under federal civil forfeiture law instead of the applicable state law. This is a great deal for law enforcement because federal law makes civil forfeiture both relatively easy and rewarding – as much as 80 percent of the proceeds are returned to the seizing agency. Sounds sort of like, I don’t know…how a mafia operates, doesn’t it? You rob and extort from people, give the boss a cut, and you keep the rest of the money.
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments
are supposed to prohibit the governmental takings of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
But this program has given government a way around that.
In civil asset forfeiture cases the government proceeds directly against your property. An individual doesn’t need to be convicted of a crime, so criminal procedure does not apply. And because the forfeiture is against the property, the owner is a third party claimant in related court proceedings.
Here’s an example:
A police officer pulls a car over for speeding. The officer thinks he smells marijuana and seizes money and perhaps other property from the vehicle. The officer (or other law enforcement agent) writes and signs a statement or affidavit explaining the situation and reasons for the seizure of the property. That statement is used to show the courts the link between the alleged criminal behavior and the seized property.
Because the case is against the property and not the owner, court cases have names like these:
United States v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency
State v. One 2012 Mercedes Benz
United States v. One Gold Necklace
You see, property doesn’t have Constitutional rights (it could be argued that humans no longer have them either, but I digress). The hundred dollar bills in your wallet, your expensive watch, and your vehicle don’t have the right to an attorney.
Often, the cost of going to court to try to get your stolen property back costs more than the value of the items. For example, in the
District of Criminals Washington, D.C., it can cost up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.
Asset forfeiture creates huge incentives for law enforcement officers to “police for profit.” The money can be used for salaries and to purchase advanced equipment and all kinds of fun stuff for police departments.
In late 2014, Obama announced that his choice for Holder’s replacement as AG was Loretta Lynch, who was then the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Those who pay attention to matters like civil asset forfeiture were alarmed when Lynch announced that her office seized over $904 million in asset forfeitures – in 2013 alone.
I wondered if Lynch was going to allow Holder’s reforms to remain in place.
Today, I got my answer.
InJustice Department announced yesterday that it is resuming its equitable sharing program.
From The Washington Post:
“In the months since we made the difficult decision to defer equitable sharing payments because of the $1.2 billion rescinded from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring Equitable Sharing payments,” spokesman Peter J. Carr said.
Reformers had hoped that the suspension of the program back in December was a signal that the Justice Department was looking for ways to rein in the practice. But that no longer appears to be the case.
Scott Bullock, president of the Institute for Justice (a civil liberties law firm that researches asset forfeiture and advocates on behalf of forfeiture defendants), told the Post in an interview:
This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system.
Changes to forfeiture policy can be swept away by the stroke of a pen.
The limits Holder placed on the program outraged law enforcement groups, which isn’t surprising, considering that police departments were reaping some serious benefits from the program. According to a November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice called Policing for Profit, between 2000 and 2013, the Justice Department paid local and state agencies more than $4.7 billion in equitable sharing proceeds.
Police departments have used that money to buy themselves all kinds of neat-o things, including but not limited to:
- in Camden County, Ga., a $90,000 Dodge Viper for the county’s DARE program;
- in Colorado, bomber jackets for the Colorado State Patrol;
- in Austin, Texas, running gear for the police department;
- in Fulton County, Ga., football tickets for the district attorney’s office,
- in Webb County, Texas, $20,000 for TV commercials for the district attorney’s re-election campaign;
- in Kimble County, Texas, $14,000 for a “training seminar” in Hawaii for the staff of the district attorney’s office;
- in Albany, N.Y., over $16,000 for food, gifts and entertainment for the police department.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation argues asset forfeiture helps law enforcement reduce the “incentive for illegal conduct…[and] takes the profit out of crime by helping to eliminate the ability of the offender to command resources necessary to continue illegal activities.”
Does anyone actually believe that?
The Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984 established the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund to receive the proceeds of forfeiture to pay the costs associated with forfeitures including managing and disposing of property, plus finance certain general investigative expenses, reports RT. Like most things government-related, the program has spiraled out of control and has become, well, abusive and horribly corrupt.
Despite growing awareness (and outrage), asset forfeiture is growing fast – in 2014 alone, federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets.
That’s more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Who are the real criminals in the US?
Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak – let’s just call “civil asset forfeiture” and “equitable sharing” what they are: armed robbery by government thugs.
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