Pubdate: Fri, 25 Dec 2015
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Orange County Register
Author: Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post


WASHINGTON - The Department of Justice announced this week that it's 
suspending a controversial program that allows local police 
departments to keep a large portion of assets seized from citizens 
under federal law and funnel it into their own coffers.

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 them from are never charged with a crime.

The DOJ is suspending payments under this program due to budget cuts 
in the recent spending bill.

"While we had hoped to minimize any adverse impact on state, local, 
and tribal law enforcement part ners, the Department is deferring for 
the time being any equitable sharing payments from the Program," M. 
Kendall Day, chief of the asset-forfeiture and money-laundering 
section, wrote in a letter to state and local law enforcement agencies.

In addition to budget cuts last year, the program has lost $1.2 
billion, according to Day's letter. "The Department does not take 
this step lightly," he wrote. "We explored every conceivable option 
that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful 
equitable sharing."

Asset forfeiture has become an increasingly contentious practice in 
recent years. It lets police seize and keep cash and property from 
people who are never convicted  and in many cases, never 
charged  with wrongdoing. Recent reports have found that the use of 
the practice has exploded in recent years, prompting concern that, in 
some cases, police are motivated more by profits and less by justice.

Criminal justice reformers are cheering the change. "This is a 
significant deal," said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the 
Institute for Justice, in an interview. "Local law enforcement 
responds to incentives. And it's clear that one of the biggest 
incentives is the relative payout from federal versus state 
forfeiture. And this announcement by the DOJ changes the playing 
field for which law (enforcement) state and local is going to prefer."

Previous research by the Institute for Justice has shown that when 
states have stricter forfeiture laws, cops are more likely to pursue 
forfeiture cases under federal law as a means of bypassing those 
stricter state restrictions.

In California, police are allowed to keep 66.25 percent of forfeiture 
proceeds under state law, but 80 percent if they opt for the federal 
equitable sharing route. And forfeiture figures reflect this: In 
2013, California police forfeited $28 million worth of cash and 
property under state law, but $98 million under federal law, 
according to the Institute for Justice's research.

It's unclear how much of the total haul will be affected by the DOJ's 
change, since many states don't make their forfeiture data public. 
But as the case of California shows, it is potentially significant: 
In this state in 2013, nearly eight out of every 10 dollars of 
forfeited property went through federal law. Under this change, that 
flow of cash would be shut off.

Some law enforcement groups aren't happy. The International 
Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) said in a statement that "this 
decision is detrimental to state, local and tribal law enforcement 
agencies and the communities they serve."

In a letter sent to President Obama, the leaders of Congress, and 
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the heads of six law enforcement 
groups  including the IACP and the National District Attorney's 
Association  wrote to express "profound concern" over the changes: 
"This shortsighted decision by Congress will have a significant and 
immediate impact on the ability of law enforcement agencies 
throughout the nation to protect their communities and provide their 
citizens with the services they expect and deserve."

The National Sheriff's Association was even more critical. "While 
Congress and the President vacation in peace and tranquility, law 
enforcement knows all too well that the criminals, terrorists, and 
criminal aliens do not take a holiday," the group wrote in a 
statement. "Those seeking to do us harm can rest easier knowing one 
less tool can be used against them."

But reformers say the change doesn't impact law enforcement's ability 
to seize goods from suspected criminals  it only changes their 
options for keeping what they take. The change "does not stop police 
and prosecutors from chasing criminals," McGrath said. "(Police) are 
frustrated because Congress put on hold their chasing cash."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom