Pubdate: Sat, 23 Apr 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company


The Justice Department Restarts Incentives for Asset Forfeiture.

THE JUSTICE Department calls it a tool to crack down on terrorists, 
kleptocrats and fugitives. So why did it result in the seizure of 
money and other assets from law-abiding people? Welcome to the weird 
world of civil asset forfeiture, in which the government can take 
property without charging its owner with a crime. There are some 
legitimate reasons for the practice, such as cracking down on 
sophisticated organized-crime rings, that manage to separate 
criminals from tainted assets. But even after years of criticism and 
reports of abuse, the federal government still has not reformed its 
piece of the system enough to keep its application narrow and fair.

The use of civil forfeiture has boomed over the past decade, in part 
because of the Justice Department's "equitable sharing" policy, which 
gives local law enforcement a cut of the proceeds from seizures they 
turn over to the federal government. Federal seizure rules are 
sometimes looser than state rules. If local police can put seized 
assets into the federal system and still get a slice of the pot, the 
federal government is giving local police departments a financial 
interest in using the federal system to maximize seizures.

The result has been stories such as that of Mandrel Stuart, a 
barbecue restaurant owner from whom Fairfax County police took 
$17,550 in 2012. Police pulled Mr. Stuart over for having tinted 
windows and a video playing in his line of sight - and ultimately 
released him without charge. But they kept the money, which Mr. 
Stuart said was for buying restaurant supplies, and had a Drug 
Enforcement Administration officer process it. Mr. Stuart got his 
money back - but it took a year, and he lost his business in the meantime.

Responding to reports such as these, the Justice Department has over 
the past two years placed stronger limits on equitable sharing, 
requiring that seizures be processed under the program only if the 
feds were involved before police took the assets and requiring that 
federal prosecutors quickly vet them. These new rules are helpful but 
not enough.

The point of equitable sharing should be to fight major crimes, not 
pad police budgets. Any link between the volume of seizures and the 
windfall to police departments must be broken. Otherwise police 
departments will be tempted to push the rules as far as they can. For 
a time, the Justice Department seemed poised to end equitable 
sharing, suspending the scheme. But the department recently announced 
that it is restarting the program. It should reconsider, cordoning 
off seized assets for other purposes and finding other ways to 
encourage local police to assist in federal investigations.

Even if the feds reform fully, they cannot touch state civil seizure 
rules, which in many locales continue to encourage abuse. These, too, 
should be reformed so that innocent people cannot be deprived 
unfairly of their hard-earned cash.
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