Pubdate: Mon, 04 Apr 2016
Source: Detroit News (MI)
Copyright: 2016 The Detroit News
Authors: Trevor Burrus and Randal John Meyer
Note: Trevor Burrus is a research fellow and Randal John Meyer is a 
legal associate at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional 
Studies. Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


The Justice Department recently announced that it is resuming the 
"equitable sharing" part of its civil asset forfeiture program, thus 
ending one of the major criminal justice reform victories of the 
Obama administration.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool by which police officers can 
seize and sell private property without a convicting the owner of any 
crime, and equitable sharing is a process by which state and local 
police can circumvent state restrictions on civil asset forfeiture 
and take property under the color of federal law.

It may sound like a scene from a dystopian novel, but under civil 
asset forfeiture, a police officer can pull you over, claim he smells 
marijuana, and then take all the cash you have - and maybe even your 
car, too. Getting your property back requires going through lengthy 
court procedures to prove that the property is "innocent."

Back in December, after Congress enacted reductions to the Justice 
Department's civil asset forfeiture fund by $1.2 billion, the Justice 
Department announced that the program was being deferred until further notice.

Criminal justice reform advocates hailed this as a major victory, but 
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that it was "imperative" that the 
"decision to suspend the equitable sharing program be immediately 
reconsidered." The Justice Department now says that "it was always 
our intent to resume payments as soon as it became financially 
feasible. .. And now, we are finally at a point where it is no longer 
necessary to continue the deferral."

Over the past decade and a half, civil asset forfeiture has exploded, 
and federal incentives have played a large role in that 
transformation. Last year, American police seized more private 
property than actual thieves. The Justice Department's forfeiture 
fund has provided a huge financial boon to the federal government. 
The Institute for Justice notes that the federal government "took in 
nearly $29 billion from 2001 to 2014, and combined annual revenue 
grew 1,000 percent over the period."

Because federal forfeiture policies allow local police to keep up to 
80 percent of what they seize, abuses are rampant. When police are 
allowed to directly benefit from seizing assets, stark injustices can occur.

For example, an art gallery party in Detroit was raided in 2008 
because the "gallery did not possess a proper license to hold such an 
event." Police seized and impounded 44 vehicles parked on the 
adjacent street. Outrage over this incident lead to Michigan 
officials passing a law to raise the evidentiary standard in state 
asset forfeiture proceedings. Now, to avoid the restrictions of that 
legislation, all local police will need to do is involve federal 
officials, entitling them to equitable sharing in the program.

Under the federal civil asset forfeiture program, state and local 
police are encouraged to join in federal drug investigations because 
their participation entitles them to a large portion of the seized 
assets - dispersed from the equitable fund.

While that may seem like good policy, without proper restraints it 
simply means the states are just as encouraged as the federal 
government to seize money from private citizens without just cause.

Through programs like granting clemency to nonviolent drug offenders, 
the Obama administration has made important strides in reigning in 
our oversized and overused criminal justice system. Resuming the 
equitable payment system is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom