Asset Forfeiture

Bad News: The Justice Dept. Has Restarted Its Program to Share Seized Property with Police

Incentives bolstered to find reasons to take private property in the name of fighting crime.

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I still have half my celebration cake sitting in the freezer.
Credit: Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

The Department of Justice has restored its program that allows it to partner with local law enforcement agencies, seize money and property from raids, and then redistribute the assets back to those police departments.

This is bad news for criminal justice reformers. This program, known as "equitable sharing," incentivizes "policing for profit," pushing police to focus on enforcing laws that grant them the opportunity to seize property to bolster budgets (drug war stuff) over crimes that actually directly harm others. Furthermore, it allows local law enforcement agencies to turn to the federal government to bypass state-level restrictions on how property may be seized and how the assets are distributed. It is designed to make it difficult for those targeted to fight back with a byzantine bureaucratic process that puts the property itself on trial, not a person. Police often seize assets from people without ever even charging—let alone convicting—them with a crime, knowing full well how hard it is for citizens to recover their property. Under the Justice Department's guidelines, police can keep up to 80 percent of what they seize, numbers often higher than what states permit themselves.

The federal program was suspended in December because the federal omnibus legislation cut hundreds of billions from the program. Brian Doherty highlighted the change in our April issue of Reason. But we barely had time to celebrate its suspension before its return.

Washington Post Reporter Christopher Ingraham tweeted out an e-mail from the Justice Department announcing the program's return:

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In case anybody needs a reminder of how much asset forfeiture programs are abused, the dollar value of assets that are seized by law enforcement agencies is now greater than the value of losses reported annually in burglaries.

Read more of Reason all over the asset forfeiture beat here. Remember, whenever any state proposes reform to asset forfeiture to make it easier for citizens to defend themselves, it's always worth seeing whether the proposals also prevent local agencies from turning to the federal "equitable sharing" program to bypass these reforms.