Justice Department restarts program to seize assets from suspected criminals

Advocates of the program frame it as a necessity, as it weakens criminal economy and supplements underfunded local police departments.

Amanda Cowan/The Columbian/AP
Evidence technician Kit Abernathy looks over items seized under asset forfeiture to be sold at an auction.

The US Department of Justice will restore the "equitable-sharing" program that allows police officers to prosecute civil forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law.

The controversial program authorizes police enforcement to reap considerable amounts of profits from seized assets and property from citizens suspected of committing offenses, even when they have not been convicted, The Daily Caller reported.

The program was temporarily suspended last December, as a result of of budget reductions contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 and the December 2015 Consolidated Appropriations Act, drawing widespread condemnation from advocates of the program.

Civil asset forfeiture is a contentious practice that has long faced scrutiny from criminal justice reformers contending that the measure allows police officers to seek profits at the cost of justice. The practice allows officers to seize assets without proof of offense. For instance, police officers sized $11,000 from 24-year-old Charles Clarke, claiming that his luggage smelled like Marijuana, Vox reported. The officers didn't find any marijuana after conducting a search, though Clarke did admit to having smoked marijuana on the plane. In these cases, the property or asset is considered the defendant, which means that the innocence of the owner is irrelevant, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Sara Stillman of The New Yorker notes

“A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence.Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, DC, charges 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.”

A 2015 report, "Policing for Profit" by the Institute for Justice, found that the combined asset forfeiture funds of the Justice Department and the US Treasury had tripled in just six years, from $1.5 billion in 2008 to $4.5 billion in 2014. The same report revealed that police officers often seize more assets during periods of economic hardship.

"This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system," Scott Bullock, president of the Institute for Justice, who among other reformers had hoped that the suspension would result in the re-examination of the program, told The Washington Post.

Advocates of the program frame it as a necessity to police enforcement. Apart from its effectiveness in crippling the "economic infrastructure of the criminal enterprise," they say the program is necessary in supplementing funds to otherwise underfunded local police departments.

Following the suspension of the program last December, several departments including the heads of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, and other groups wrote a letter appealing to President Obama, and contending that the suspension was bound to have a "significant and immediate impact on the ability of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to protect their communities," The Washington Post reported.

The resources provided by the equitable sharing program have allowed agencies to participate in joint task forces to thwart and deter serious criminal activity and terrorism, purchase equipment, provide training, upgrade technology, engage their communities, and better protect their officers. Given the remarkable success of this program, the provisions approved by Congress and the Administration are both baffling and disappointing. The suspension of equitable sharing payments may cause some agencies across the country to reconsider their ability to participate in joint task forces with the federal government. The effects of this decision are far reaching and not only a disservice to law enforcement, but also to the public they are sworn to protect.

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