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Holder’s New Limits on Asset Forfeiture: Big Deal.

Last Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed new federal limits on asset forfeiture, possibly due to the growing public awareness and criminal defense outcry concerning the shocking ways in which local police departments and various state agencies have been profiting through the seizure of private property without bothering to arrest the property owner.  Literally BILLIONS of dollars in revenue are being collected by various law enforcement agencies around the country using civil forfeiture laws.

 

Police and Money Go Way Back: 1902 cartoon by William Allen Rogers entitled “The Big Chief’s Fairy Godmother’, published in Harper’s Weekly, showing caricature of New York City Police Chief William Stephen Devery seated on a fire hydrant while a fairy showers him with coins.

 

For details on Forfeiture Abuse by Law Enforcement, see:

1. Will Media Coverage Finally Stop Government From Grabbing Your Property In Forfeiture?

2. The Forfeiture Epidemic: When The Government Just Takes Your Property And Keeps It

3. Lessons Of The Gas Pipe Bust: Traffic Stop Leads To Major Synthetic Marijuana Bust And Big Federal Forfeiture Grab

4. Report On Forfeiture Abuse By State And Federal Law Enforcement Added To Michael Lowe Digital Library Today

The Equitable Sharing Program: Forfeiture Fun for Feds and Police

What has been announced by the federal government (read the official press release here) is to change the process of the federal government taking ownership of property taken (seized) by either state or local law enforcement agencies under civil forfeiture laws under its “Equitable Sharing Program.”

Essentially, the Equitable Sharing Program worked as the federal government would “adopt” a case where local police departments in Texas, or county sheriffs’ departments, or state law enforcement organizations had seized property. The federal agency would file a forfeiture case in federal court, easily gaining ownership pursuant to court judgment via the federal civil forfeiture laws, and then sharing a percentage of the property with the police of sheriff’s deputies who had initially grabbed it.

Of course, this seemed to be a great idea to federal, state, and local authorities alike.

Not everyone else agreed. Criminal defense lawyers, as well as all those folk who had their property taken (especially those who were never arrested), understood that this “Equitable Sharing Program” created a great incentive to go out and seize stuff.

Then, the Washington Post began an investigative expose of this civil forfeiture abuse epidemic. Media coverage in other national and local outlets followed. There was even a popular video by John Oliver on HBO, see it here:

 

The Forfeiture Change Announced by the Attorney General

Holder’s announcement changes thing by eliminating the “adoption” by the federal government of any state or local asset seizures. That’s the general rule, but it is not all-encompassing.

According to the language of the Order implementing this change if there are assets seized in a joint task force operation, where the federal agents are working in tandem with other law enforcement agencies, then the change does not apply.

Read the Order here.

How Does This Change Things? Not That Much, Really.

Well, this Big Change may not make much of a difference. For one thing, as Reason.com points out, 86% of “equitable sharing” forfeiture payments can be tied to investigations or operations involving both the federal government and state or local law enforcement. See, “How the Press Exaggerated Holder’s Forfeiture Reform.”

Which means that the exception to the New General Rule leaves only 14% of federal forfeiture actions impacted by this change.

Of course, there are those that argue Holder has done something that will make a big impact. The New York Times called it a “sweeping change.”  The National Association of Police Organizations reportedly complained to the Washington Post that police departments are deeply concerned that they will be losing lots of revenue now — that seizure proceeds can account for 20% or more of their annual revenues.

It appears that the Washington Post and others are catching on to the reality that Eric Holder’s announcement isn’t really doing much to change the problem of asset forfeiture in this country. Yesterday, Radley Balko pointed out as much in his WaPo piece, “How much civil asset forfeiture will Holder’s new policy actually prevent?

So, the billions of dollars that the Washington Post expose discovered is being grabbed by law enforcement (in news stories complete with financial records on a County by County basis obtained by the Freedom of Information Act)?  Looks like it will be pretty much business as usual regardless of Holder’s announcement.


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