Pubdate: Sat, 17 Jan 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Associated Press
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.


Congress Members, Civil Liberties Groups Among Critics of Property 
Seizure Practice

WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced 
sweeping changes to a federal civil asset forfeiture program that 
local law enforcement agencies have been able to use to seize property.

The asset forfeiture practice has been criticized, including by civil 
liberties groups and members of Congress, because it enables law 
enforcement to seize possessions - such as cars and money - without 
an indictment or evidence that a crime has occurred.

Under new rules announced Friday, federal agencies will no longer be 
able to accept or "adopt" assets seized by local and state law 
enforcement agencies - unless the property includes firearms, 
ammunition, explosives, child pornography or other materials 
concerning public safety. Holder described the new policy as the 
"first step in a comprehensive review."

The new policy does not affect asset seizures made under joint state 
and federal operations, and local law enforcement may still seize 
property under state laws.

The program was developed at a time when most states didn't have 
their own asset forfeiture laws and did not have legal authority to 
forfeit seized items, raising concerns that seized property might 
ultimately return to the hands of criminals. But Holder said all 
states now have civil or criminal asset forfeiture law, so it's no 
longer as necessary for local law enforcement to turn over seized 
property to federal agencies.

Civil liberties groups praised the attorney general's move.

"This is a significant advancement to reform a practice that is a 
clear violation of due process that is often used to 
disproportionately target communities of color," Laura W. Murphy, 
director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington 
Legislative Office, said in a statement. "Now Congress and state 
governments should pass legislation to end the practice of seizing 
innocent Americans' property and protect their due process."

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said Holder's decision would have 
minimal impact on his department.

Gore said the vast majority of asset seizures made by the Sheriff's 
Department come from joint operations such as the county's narcotics 
task force and East and North County gang task forces that rely on 
search warrants and are the result of long-term investigations.

"We make seizures in those operations, but those seizures are done in 
conjunction with long-term investigations and search warrants," Gore said.

Gore estimated about 97 percent of his department's seizures fall 
into those categories, rather than from "random stops where you seize money."

It was unclear how the decision would impact other local law 
enforcement agencies.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman released a statement on the 
issue: "The majority of the assets seized by our officers are not 
adoptive forfeiture cases. However, having only received this 
information this afternoon, we are in the process of assessing the 
impact this decision will have on our operations."

Staff writer Karen Kucher contributed to this report.
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