Well, that didn’t last long.
In December, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced it would halt a program which made it easy for law enforcement agencies to profit from civil asset forfeiture:
The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize — even if the people they took from are never charged with a crime.
The DOJ is suspending payments under this program due to budget cuts included in the recent spending bill.
Once your property has been confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t get it from any criminal activity. Even if you personally are cleared of all charges, that may not matter. As the Philadelphia City Paper reports, “Technically, it’s the property—not its owner—that’s being accused of criminality, which means the property can be subject to forfeiture whether or not its owner is ever convicted of a crime.”
In other words, they don’t have to charge you. They don’t have to present any evidence of illegal activity. Worse yet, you have no right to a lawyer and won’t get a day in court. In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay thousands of dollars just to be able to contest the seizure.
And guess what? The police conveniently happen to consider large amounts of cash inherently suspicious—but not too suspicious to dump it right into their departmental bank account.
To say this policy is unjust is the understatement of the century.
In fact, just ignore the long, bureaucratic name: Civil asset forfeiture is government theft.
So this is why the DOJ’s December announcement was such good news. It didn’t put a halt to all civil asset forfeiture, but it did significantly curtail its bite. Now, just three months later, the DOJ has revoked its reform:
The Justice Department today announced that it is resuming a controversial practice that allows local police departments to funnel a large portion of assets seized from citizens into their own coffers under federal law.
The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. The Justice Department had suspended payments under this program back in December, due to budget cuts included in last year’s spending bill.
That last bit is important because it explains why this reversal, though disappointing, is not exactly surprising: The December announcement was never about principle.
It was never about stopping this institutionalized theft.
It was never about limiting this policing for profit.
It was just about the feds wanting more money, which they achieved by sharing less with smaller law enforcement agencies.
“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,” said DOJ spokesman Peter J. Carr, “the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring Equitable Sharing payments.”
And we are talking about a lot of money.
In 2014, federal civil asset forfeiture alone (i.e. not counting state and local police seizures) took more money from Americans than actual burglars.
There’s big money in civil seizure at the state and local level, too. For example, “Between 2004 and 2009, Philadelphia collected some $36 million via civil forfeiture,”mainly from young, black men. Long Island police took in $31 million in a single year. The State of Virginia seized assets and cash worth more than $18 million in 2013 alone. In the same year, Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture profits topped $16 million, and the State of Texas took a whopping $106 million from its citizens.
Indeed, one study found that when the economy is doing poorly and taxes are low, police increase their forfeiture rate to make up the difference.
“There’s some limitations on it. Actually, there’s not really on the forfeiture stuff. We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget, for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on because we need to have those purchased,” one cop infamously remarked on camera.
“It’s kind of like pennies from heaven,” he added. “It gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”
Again, this is theft.
The one source of hope in all this is that Congress and state legislatures could take action to nix this appalling practice. New Mexico and Montana already did it, passing laws which require a criminal conviction for police to take your money or stuff.
Other states and our representatives on the Hill should follow their lead, as this DOJ episode makes clear once and for all that these law enforcement agencies will not do the right thing of their own accord.