Federal Asset Forfeiture Sharing Program Effective Immediately

By January 16, 2015 News


Practice Allowed Police to Seize Assets From Those Never Charged With A Crime, Created “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” Standard

Washington D.C.–Today Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy, effective immediately, that will greatly restrict the ability of state and local police forces to use federal law to seize goods without charging an individual with a crime. Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which authorities seize property alleged to have been involved in a crime, charge the property directly, since goods do not have the same constitutional protections as their owners, and then keep most of the proceeds for departmental use.

For years, this practice has been a major incentive for police to make false charges and seize assets without having to prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” and instead only meet the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard of civil cases. Today’s announcement means police departments will still be permitted to make seizures under state and local laws, but they will no longer be able to use the DOJ Equitable Sharing Program to use federal law to do so.

“Civil asset forfeiture laws turn many fundamental concepts of democracy upside down, creating an assumption of ‘guilty until proven innocent,’” said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Before today, anyone could have their money or assets taken by police without ever being charged with a crime and with little chance of ever getting it back. Today is a major victory for anyone who cares about due process and the rule of law.”

Drug charges are among the most commonly used to justify such seizures. They are particularly appealing because a court may permit the seizure of cash related to drug sales as well as any property associated with the alleged crime. This may include personal property such as boats, cars, airplanes or land owned by the alleged wrongdoer. The department is then free to use these most of these assets as they see fit.

In most cases, property owners are unable to retrieve their property because of onerous appeals procedures and because the burden of proof shifted to owners to prove their innocence rather than the burden being on the state to prove their guilt. Because the amount seized is often less than the cost of contesting the case in court, 5 out of 6 people never challenge the case.

A September 2014 Washington Post report found that since 9/11, nearly 62,000 cash seizures totaling more than $2.5 billion were conducted without search warrants.

The announcement comes one week after Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent Holder a letter urging him to rein in asset forfeiture practices.

There are a few exceptions to the new policy, including “illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.”

LEAP is a nonprofit of criminal justice professionals who know the war on drugs has created a public safety nightmare of increased gang violence, police militarization and the fueling of dangerous underground markets.

Darby Beck