Civil Asset Forfeiture

How the Press Exaggerated Holder's Forfeiture Reform

The change leaves untouched the vast majority of loot that state and local agencies get from federal asset grabs.


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This morning I noted that the impact of the forfeiture reform announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last week will be limited by his exception for state and local seizures that result from investigations assisted by or coordinated with federal authorities. I quoted Eapen Thampy, executive director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, who argues that "the exception swallows the rule." The Justice Department's own numbers suggest that is pretty close to the truth.

Holder's order applies only to "adoption," which happens when a state or local agency seizes property on its own and then asks the Justice Department to pursue forfeiture under federal law. "Over the last six years," the DOJ says in the press release announcing Holder's new policy, "adoptions accounted for roughly three percent of the value of forfeitures in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program." By comparison, the program's reports to Congress indicate that "equitable sharing" payments to state and local agencies accounted for about 22 percent of total deposits during those six years. That means adoptions, which the DOJ says represented about 3 percent of deposits, accounted for less than 14 percent of equitable sharing. In other words, something like 86 percent of the loot that state and local law enforcement agencies receive through federal forfeitures will be unaffected by Holder's new policy.

That is not the impression left by The Washington Post, which broke this story on Friday. "Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges," the Post reported, saying the new policy "would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the [equitable sharing] program." The Post did note, deep in the story, that Holder said equitable sharing would continue in cases "where local and federal authorities are collaborating." But it said "most of the money and property taken under Equitable Sharing since 2008…was not seized in collaboration with federal authorities."

That contradicts the Justice Department's numbers, which indicate that the vast majority of equitable sharing comes not from adoption but from "collaboration" of some sort, even if it is limited to federal support for multijurisdictional task forces. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office reinforces that point, noting that "adoptions made up about 17 percent of all equitable sharing payments" in 2010.

Because the significance of eliminating most adoptions (but not most equitable sharing, let alone most federal forfeitures) was not immediately obvious, other news outlets followed the Post's overenthusiastic lead. In a story headlined "Justice Ends 'Asset Forfeiture' Program," The Hill reported:

The Justice Department announced on Friday that most police departments could not use federal law to seize property from individuals when they have no reason to believe a crime has been committed.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in an order that the department would, in most cases, no longer run a controversial "asset forfeiture" program.

That is not true, since the vast majority of federal forfeiture cases that benefit state and local agencies do not involve adoption.

Time reported that Holder had said "state and local officials would no longer be allowed to use federal law to seize private property such as cash or cars without evidence that a crime had occurred." Boing Boing likewise claimed Holder "has ordered police departments to cease the practice of civil forfeiture (basically, stealing stuff and selling it) unless the forfeiture is related to a specific warrant or charge." Even the Drug Policy Alliance praised Holder for "a new policy prohibiting federal agencies from accepting civil asset forfeiture assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies unless the owner is convicted of a crime."

I initially got caught up in the excitement too. But the closer I looked, the less there was to the new policy. I do not mean to imply that it won't accomplish anything worthwhile. Even eliminating 14 percent of the Equitable Sharing Program is a welcome step, although 100 percent (as recommended by four members of Congress, including three conservative Republicans, in a recent letter to Holder) would have been better. Holder's change surely will prevent some injustices. But it is important to recognize that he is talking about a small piece of equitable sharing and an even smaller piece of all federal forfeitures, which of course do not include forfeitures carried out under state laws (over which Holder has no authority). More-ambitious reform will require action by Congress and by state legislators.

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  1. It’s okay, I’ve learned to enjoy losing.

    OT: Just finished That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis, the last of the Space Trilogy. It really, really sucked.

    Lewis loves to treat his books as a thinly veiled essay celebrating his ideology, but this is the worst example of all his works, and is especially disappointing after the characterization and suspense of the first two in the trilogy were interesting enough to drown out that stupidity.

    It should also be noted that nothing actually happens in this book.

    1. Also, the Dunphys of the world will just be sure to bring in the feds on every investigation now, costing more money and increasing the need for asset forfeiture.

      But I hate life so who cares.

      1. Rubbish

        In fact we’ve refused to involve the Feds in many cases when they asked

        They have asked us in the past (medical mj before legalization) to refer good federal but non state worthy cases

        We decline

        I chose my state BECAUSE it recognizes privacy unlike the Feds

        Wallow in your ignorance, subject

        We citizens stand proud


        1. All the peeing on each other’s boots aside, I doubt that other departments will take that stance.

          Hope so, and I guess you would know more than me. But I doubt it.

          1. Some do. Some don’t

            Just like many other things in life it varies

            But as a general rule I have found depts in my state do not forward drug cases to Feds that are legal under state law (via legalization etc) but illegal federally

            My experience in this respect limited to WA

            1. And Morgan Fairchild.

              How much do you bench, bro?

        2. Fuck off slaver



    2. “Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow.”

      In the foreword, Lewis states that the novel’s point is the same as that in his non-fiction work The Abolition of Man, which argues that there are natural laws and objective values, which education should teach children to recognise.

      Yep, and we see which ‘natural laws’ and ‘objective values’ he holds dear.

    3. Yeah I thought that book sucked too, after reading the first two with interest. But then, I’m not religious, so most of CS Lewis doesn’t really interest me, since so much of it is just ham-fisted Christian metaphor.

      1. Now I know why Tolkien looked down on him. Ideals can be culled from the Middle-Earth books, but they are heavily clouded. You could rip monarchism, communism, and libertarianism from it all at the same time and feel comfortable about it.

        Which is probably why they’re such good fucking books

  2. From a state’s right angle OF COURSE Holder’s actions won’t gave an effect on seizures under state law… Um, and they shouldn’t

    They are an injustice but so is creeping federal power

    Thank god I live in a state with a kickass constitution

    Of course there’s an interpretation argument under the whole ‘reasonable’ thang (4th) but in many states the rights are so much more extensive it’s irrelevant

    (Except for task forces as correctly pointed out)

    I’ve worked on tasks forces before and the difference in search and seizure power between federal and WA state constitutions is immense – WAY beyond civil seizure

    WA constitution – can’t search car incident to arrest, can’t do helicopter curtilage search w/o warrant or search of trash at corner or DUI roadblock or pretext stop or search of home because a person is arrested for dealing

    All are legal w/o warrant in most states and with warrant in last example

    None are kosher in WA

    choose your state wisely

    1. Specifically, I worked fugitive task forces

      My bounty hunter friends have greater seizure and search powers but federal power is way more extensive than state

      1. Cops from different agencies join to form a multijurisdictional task force:

    2. I suppose it would be cynical of me to suggest that a wise cop would do well to choose WA – the state with the lowest rate of prosecution of law enforcement for misuse of force incidents of all the 50 states (half the national average) due to the extremely high standard set by the WA state law (must show actual malice and not just general thuggery) for prosecuting cops who use excessive force on the citizenry while on duty.

      1. “due to the extremely high standard set by the WA state law (must show actual malice and not just general thuggery) for prosecuting cops who use excessive force on the citizenry while on duty.”

        Didn’t Dunphy say he chose his state wisely?

  3. I sure am glad you admitted this whole thing may just be a joke – I’ve thought for several days that maybe I’ve been taking crazy pills because everybody else smarter than me (admittedly a low bar) seemed to think that this was a big first step in getting rid of asset forfeiture all together and I just didn’t see it at all. Even looking at the black letter law it seemed easy to guess that you could slide a truck sideways through that exception clause and when you realize that people like Holder take great pride in how far they can stretch the plain meaning of the law (“It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”) well then you realize that the words mean nothing at all. Or anything at all. Whatever. You can or you can’t, you may or you must – those can all mean the same thing if a Harvard lawyer squints hard enough.

    And when you look at the case of Utah where, through a ballot initiative, the citizens of that state put their foot down and said “hell, no” to asset forfeiture and the Utah lege turned right around and cut the balls off that law you realize that killing off legalized theft by the state is going to require a lot more than just words – silver bullets and wooden stakes and holy water might be a better start.

    1. Jerryskids|1.19.15 @ 11:15PM|#
      “I sure am glad you admitted this whole thing may just be a joke – I’ve thought for several days that maybe I’ve been taking crazy pills because everybody else smarter than me (admittedly a low bar)”…

      Snookered me; I gave the guy props for hitting one out of the park.
      I guess it was a long “out”.

      1. Cork in his bat. Automatic disqualification.

  4. I’m using my immense legal powers to asset forfeit this entire thread.

  5. OT: Attention, Derpologist! Check out this comment!

    There are many White American Professional Women like MYSELF & many others either DATING or MARRIED to Mexican or Hispanic Men in America that PARTICIPATED in THE GLOBAL NO PANTS SUBWAY RIDE 2015 in Los Angeles California USA on Sunday January 11, 2015 by venturing out to America’s Mexican or Hispanic BARRIOS by paying TRIBUTE & SOLIDARITY to the GANGSTERS & BAD BOYS of America’s URBAN SUBCULTURE ENVIRONMENT where The THEME was The RAP or HIP-HOP Music Culture & Fashion Narrative of America’s Mexican or Hispanic BARRIOS in MEMORY & TRIBUTE to The VICTIMS of The French Newspaper CHARLIE HEBDO Paris France Terror Attacks COMPELLING PRAVDA, President Putin of Russia & The Russian FSB by MAINSTREAMING The LOWRIDER Car Culture. As a SEX RADICAL White American Woman, [snip…]

    1. I’M Convinced of EVERYTHING!

    2. Missing several periods, at least some logical thinking and a really good dose of reality.

      1. Are you grading on a curve?

        1. Notorious G.K.C.|1.19.15 @ 11:46PM|#
          “Are you grading on a curve?”

          I’d be nice if this one were somewhere close to where the curve begins.

          1. Oh I get it – missing periods, missing logical thinking, missing reality.

            Ha ha, I’m sure dum.

      2. That sort of thing can happen to you, if you RIDE the SUBWAY with NO PANTS.

      3. “Missing several periods”

        My God? It’s pregnant?!

    3. I have to say I am surprised Pravda allows people to comment with so much batshit insanity when the trend these days seems to be to ditch comments altogether.

      1. In Putin’s Russia, Internet comments on YOU!

      2. “…the trend these days seems to be to ditch comments altogether.” Doesn’t that piss you off? And then you have the sites that will pick and choose which stories you get to comment on, so one story everybody’s typing away and another story pops up that everybody’s interested in and there’s no comments whatsoever. Of course, who cares, it’s not like the papers or sites read the comments except to see if anyone is using ‘offensive’ language.

    4. She claims to be a “professional”. I’ll wager that she’s a government worker.

  6. More-ambitious reform will require action by Congress and by state legislators.

    Nah. If *they* refuse to act, ….

  7. OT
    Reading (starting; it’s not an afternoon read) “Europe”, Simms (…..ope,+Simms )
    He makes a claim that ‘central Europe’ (meaning Germany) is to this day the driver of world history, along with some other questionable claims.
    Anyone else read it?

    1. Not me. But I read something a while back, that naval countries, like Britain, the US, The Netherlands, which rely on merchant shipping for trade and navies for protection, foster democracies because ships could be out of touch for such a long time that independence was a prerequisite (obviously he’s talking before radio and even steam).

      Whereas territorial countries, like Germany, Russia, and a zillion others, rely on armies, which, being hierarchical and always in touch, are unsuited to democracy and independent thinking.

      Germany may have a coastline, but it is a territorial country in every important aspect, which is where Tirpitz and Kaiser Wilhelm and others (but probably not Bismark) went astray prior to WW I; its navy was always going to play second fiffle to the army.

      France has always punched below its weight because its huge coastline and England for a neighboring enemy required a navy, yet it was absolutely a territorial country whose army always took priority.

      From that point of view, the various Germanic states were always in a precarious position between Russia and France, and had to stand together with big armies. That made them too powerful for the rest of Europe to ignore, and because Britain had so much worldwide influence, that would have a knock-on affect world-wide, as the leadup to WW I showed, with Britain taking on Japan as a junior partner in the far east, and relying on the US to always be ready to help.

      1. If you would please head-scratch and find the title of that book, I sure would appreciate it.

        1. I’m out of town on business until Thursday evening. I can almost visualize the book and where it is, but ….

          I will try to remember and post here Thursday night. If not, remind me on any other post.

        2. Here’s the book: Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind, by Peter Padfield.

          It’s interesting and his thesis seems plausible, but I am not completely sold. At times I felt the thesis was just an excuse to write another maritime history; the tail that wagged the dog, so to speak.

      2. I’d find that correlation a bit shakey.

        *Navies* were never out of touch – ships and fleets were, the same way Armies were never out of touch but individual regiments may have been.

        And in any case, the effect of allowing the tiny percentage of Commanding Officers of naval units and task forces a large latitude in creating and completing objectives would be swallowed by the everyday experience of governing’ the rest of the state.

        1. Sailing ships often were out of touch for 6 months at a time. Armies never were.

          The independence was necessary for every part of the trading organizations, not just the ships. Territorial countries didn’t trade nearly as much,and what they did trade was mostly ordinary stuff, because horse cars simply couldn’t carry as much as ships and made it too expensive.

          That small fraction was not nearly as small as you imagine, and its influence was more.

          At least that’s how I remember his thesis, and it seems plausible to me.

  8. Shocker…Obama’s administration promises something, and then when it happens everyone finds out they fudged the details and didn’t deliver what people thought was promised.

    Never saw that coming.

    1. And in the process they actually got people who should know better to praise Eric Holder and demand the federal government give itself even more authority.

      Just like with the illegal immigration fiasco. The Libertarians who squeee over these administrative bait-and-switch tactics really need to find some goddamn self-respect. You’re embarrassing yourselves.

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      Gomer Pyle also said “Shazam!”, who used to hang out with Isis, which reminded me of ISIS, and now I’m scared.

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  14. “by his exception for state and local seizures that result from investigations assisted by or coordinated with federal authorities”

    Ha! Knew it was too good to be true. Basically just a ploy to coopt local law enforcement to get the feds involved in everything.

    “You can only rob citizens is we get a cut of the *power* as well as the loot.”

    Holder and Obama keep their eyes on the prize – centralized government power.

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