State and local police in the United States will no longer be able to use federal laws to justify seizing property without evidence of a crime, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Friday.
Under the official law, the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, local police departments can keep 80% of the stuff seized during drug raids and other investigations.
The practice of local police taking property, including cash and cars, from people that they stop, and of handing it over to federal authorities, became common during the country’s war on drugs in the 1980s.
Since then, the practice, commonly known “civil forfeiture,” has allowed the police to seize cash or property that they suspect is tied to a crime even if the owner isn’t charged with one.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made $3 billion worth of seizures of cash and property, the Washington Post reports.
In some cases, cops even introduced the seized cash and items into their own departments, which creates a bit of a questionable incentive. For hundreds of police departments, money or assets from these types of seizures made up 20% or more of their annual budgets, according to the Post.
In most criminal cases, the government has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. With civil forfeiture, however, only a “preponderance of evidence“— a significantly lower stands of proof — is necessary. The prosecutors actually file a lawsuit against the items, not the person. That’s why you can have your property seized even if there’s not enough evidence to charge you with a crime.
Another investigation from the Washington Post examined 43,000 reports on asset seizures dating back to 2008, which reported $2.5 billion in spending from these seizures. According to the Post’s analysis, 81% of that spending came from seizures in which the property or cash owners were never indicted.
On top of that, police have been known to make some ridiculous purchases with the money. A department in Douglasville, Georgia bought an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000, while another department spent $637 on a coffee maker.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
And once police get a hold of your assets, it’s nearly impossible to get them back. You can fight for your possessions in court, but actually winning is hard task. Notably, the IRS withheld $447,000 for two years from a small business owned by three Long Island brothers.
The Supreme Court has even upheld the practice a number of times, including its first ruling in 1827 which included some bizarre logic. That case involved the government’s attempt to seize a ship used for piracy. When the owner of the ship claimed it couldn’t be forfeited until he’d been convicted of a crime, the Supreme Court had this to say:
“The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing.”
While it sounds odd that the government would want to punish “the thing,” civil forfeiture cases today still reflect that line of reasoning.
Holder cited “safeguarding civil liberties” as a reason for the change in policy. While police can still seize assets under their individual state’s laws, many used the federal law out of ease, as the Post notes. State laws also usually require any money to funnel into a general fund.
The order directs federal agencies who have collected property during such seizures to withdraw their participation, except if the items collected could endanger the public, as in the case of illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child porn.
Holder said the ban was the first step in a comprehensive review the Justice Department has launched of the program.
An anonymous Department of Justice official told The Post that Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
(Reuters reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Bernadette Baum)