Pubdate: Sat, 17 Jan 2015
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2015 The Denver Post Corp
Authors: Robert O'Harrow Jr., Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich, The Washington Post


WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday barred local and 
state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other 
property without proving that a crime occurred.

Holder's action represents the most sweeping check on police power to 
confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades 
ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made 
more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under 
a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called 
Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and 
have them "adopted" by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. 
It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 
percent of the proceeds of the seizures, with the rest going to 
federal agencies.

"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.

Some exceptions

Holder's decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal 
firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child 
pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate 
virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state 
police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state 
laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the 
proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police 
departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund.

A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to 
discuss the attorney general's motivation, said Holder "also believes 
that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption 
process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures."

Holder's decision follows a Washington Post investigation published 
in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth 
almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants 
or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Police spent the seizure proceeds with little oversight, in some 
cases buying luxury cars, high-powered weapons and military-grade 
gear such as armored cars, according to an analysis of Justice 
Department data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

News of Holder's decision stunned advocates who have for a long time 
unsuccessfully sought to reverse civil asset forfeiture laws, arguing 
that they undermine core American values, such as property rights and 
due process.

Praise for decision

"It's high time we put an end to this damaging practice," said David 
Harris, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. 
"It has been a civil-liberties debacle and a stain on American 
criminal justice."

Holder's action comes as members of both parties in Congress are 
working together to craft legislation to overhaul civil asset 
forfeiture. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, praised Holder's decision.

"We're going to have a fairer justice system because of it," Grassley 
said. "The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil 
asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people."

But Holder's action is sure to engender its share of controversy.

The policy will touch policing and local budgets in every state. 
Since 2001, about 7,600 of the nation's 18,000 police departments and 
task forces have participated in Equitable Sharing. For hundreds of 
police departments and sheriff's offices, the seizure proceeds 
accounted for 20 percent or more of their annual budgets in recent years.

The action comes at a time when police are already angry about 
remarks that Holder and President Barack Obama made after the 
controversial police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., 
and New York City. Some have accused them of being "anti-cop."

"It seems like a continual barrage against police," said John 
Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriffs' 
Association. "I'm not saying there's no wrongdoing, but there is 
wrongdoing in everything."
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