Wonderful Asset Forfeiture News: Justice Department Temporarily Halts "Equitable Sharing" Program

Thanks to budget cuts, for a while local cops can't get federal payoffs for stealing property allegedly connected to drugs.


Budget cuts can be glorious things: the Department of Justice announces this week that, thanks to cuts in its budget of an initial $746 million in November's Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, followed up by a wondrous addition $458 million rescission in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 that became law law last week, it is temporarily halting its so-called "equitable sharing" program.

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This federal program, as Scott Shackford explained it here last month:

allows law enforcement agencies to partner with the DOJ to seize assets and distributes up to 80 percent of it back to the local police. This system often allows law enforcement agencies to completely bypass any regulations placed by states to restrain the profit motive for law enforcement agencies by either requiring more proof before they can seize assets or permitting them to keep only a smaller percentage (or none) of what they seize. State participation the Equitable Sharing program blasted off between 2000 and 2013, zooming from $198 million in annual revenue to $643 million.

The Justice Department isn't declaring defeat for all time to its local partners in crime, though. The memo from M. Kendall Day, Chief Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, goes on to say that:

 By deferring equitable sharing payments now, we preserve our ability to resume equitable sharing payments at a later date should the budget picture improve….We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing while continuing to operate the Program and meet our other fiscal obligations. Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two reductions totaling $1.2 billion made that impossible.  

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition celebrated the news in a press release today, with a hat tip to our reporting here at Reason, and the observation that:

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…

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 "equitable sharing" program should, in the name of justice itself if not the Justice Department, be halted forever, because of its essential nature as organized theft mostly from people who have never actually committed a crime for which any punishment is warranted.

But this budget-driven temporary halt is a start. When the Republic doesn't fall if law enforcement isn't paid off via this particular program for a while for stealing things from citizens for indecent reasons, perhaps a new day of common sense will dawn at the very least for this federal incentive for local misbehavior. Then perhaps civil forfeiture in general could be reconsidered for its injustice if not its budgetary concerns.