The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Rule of Law 1, Outrageous Police Power 0: Eric Holder limits asset-seizure "equitable sharing" program


I've blogged before (here and here, most recently) about the outrageous expansion in law enforcement use of "civil asset forfeiture" to—basically—steal money and property from citizens not charged (let alone convicted) of having done anything wrong. Well, good news on this front: responding to a growing wave of public outrage, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that he is discontinuing, effective immediately, the DOJ's "Equitable Sharing" program, which allowed state and local law enforcement personnel to recoup the value of seized property for use in their own departments—for personnel, vehicles, firearms, salaries, and on occasion coffee machines, air conditioners, etc. etc.). The move won't end the practice of civil asset forfeiture; as the Institute of Justice (which has organized much of the opposition to the practice of civil forfeiture) puts it on its website,

Today's announced policy would stop the process of adoption, where state and local officials use federal law to forfeit property without charging owners with a crime and then profit from those forfeitures, regardless of whether those forfeitures are permitted under state law. But the new policy leaves open a significant loophole, as state and local law enforcement can still partner with federal agents through joint task forces for forfeitures not permitted under state law, and state and local law enforcement can use such task forces to claim forfeiture proceeds they would not be entitled to under state law. Moreover, the federal government can still pursue its own civil forfeiture actions, where property owners face very significant burdens. And the policy does not change state forfeiture laws, many of which burden property owners and permit policing for profit.

It will, though, go a long, long way towards that goal, by eliminating the perverse financial incentive that "equitable sharing" gave to local law enforcement agencies to grab as many assets as they could get their hands on in order to pad their budgets. Whether or not this is Holder's way of trying to burnish his legacy before he leaves office, he gets three cheers from this corner.