Contact: Mikayla Hellwich
DOJ SUSPENDS ASSET FORFEITURE EQUITABLE SHARING
Police Currently Take More of Citizens’ Assets Than Do Thieves
Federal Sharing Linked to Circumvention of State Reforms
Washington, D.C. – The Department of Justice released a memorandum addressed to local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies Monday to announce that the equitable sharing program for asset forfeiture funds has been temporarily suspended due to financial considerations. This means that state and local law enforcement can no longer expect to receive a share of federal funds confiscated through the process of civil asset forfeiture, a method by which law enforcement can seize property and money from individuals without charging them with a crime. Until now, the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program allowed departments to keep up to 80% of assets seized in joint operations, a practice scholars have shown allows local agencies to circumvent reforms in their own states. At least one estimate puts the amount of assets confiscated by law enforcement agencies in 2014 above the total amount of robberies, suggesting, according to Reason Magazine, that “Your local police or sheriff's department is more likely to take your stuff than a robber.”
“This is one temporary solution I’d like to see made permanent,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.) executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a criminal justice group working to reform civil asset forfeiture. “There has been a tremendous amount of work done at the state level to reform these laws, but that’s all being undermined by equitable sharing. This is the biggest threat to civil liberties the public doesn’t know about.”
Civil forfeiture cases in most states require the lowest burden of proof (“preponderance of evidence”) to make a seizure. Since the cost of contesting the case in court is usually more than the value of the property seized, most people never challenge the case and permanently lose their property. In 35 states, the burden of proof is placed on the property owner, meaning that after the property is seized, it’s up to the owner to prove that they weren’t involved in the alleged crime.
Two of the original architects of civil forfeiture laws, John Yoder and Brad Cates, regret what the equitable sharing program has become. They told the Washington Post in 2014 that, “The program began with good intentions but now, having failed in both purpose and execution, it should be abolished.”
In November, the Institute for Justice published Policing For Profit, 2nd Edition to outline the major problems that have resulted from civil asset forfeiture. Between 1997 and 2013, 87% of Department of Justice seizures were civil and just 13% were criminal. This means that only 13% of people who had their property seized by law enforcement during this time were ever charged with a crime. The Institute for Justice concluded that the equitable sharing program made it possible for agencies to circumvent state laws by working with multi-jurisdictional task forces that included federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.