Today the U.S. Justice Department announced that local and state police won't be able use a federal law to justify the seizure of cars, cash, homes and other assets of people if they simply believe a crime was committed. It's a big blow to civil forfeiture, a $2.5 billion practice that has infuriated many.
The Washington Post reports that changes announced by Attorney General Eric Holder "would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program." Federal agencies shared in the proceeds under the program, called "Equitable Sharing."
Civil forfeiture gained a great deal criticism in 2014 after attention was called to the fact that law enforcement can legally seize private property if they so much as believe that property was used in the commission of a crime — not after a successful conviction.
The law began in the 1970s as part of the early War on Drugs, and while it has spiked in recent years ostensibly to fight terrorism, instead it led to local police lining their general funds with cash, cars and other assets seized for dubious reasons. Often these seizures occurred after traffic stops for minor infractions.
In training seminars, some investigators even copped to having "wish lists" for cars they wanted to seize. And since 2001, police have made cash seizures alone worth almost $2.5 billion from drivers and others without search warrants, the Post reports. And then the onus is on the owners of the property to prove in court that it wasn't used for crime, which can be a lengthy and expensive process.
Holder's announcement limits police ability to use the federal law to make such seizures, but they can still be done under state or local law. And they still do quite a bit of it:
Joint federal and local investigations accounted for just 9 percent of all seizures but 43 percent of the value of all seizures. Local and state seizures without federal participation amounted to 57 percent of the dollar value of the seized items under Equitable Sharing since 2008— $3 billion out of $5.3 billon.
But it's definitely progress, and that's a good thing. Holder seems to think it will help:
A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general's motivation, said Holder "also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures."