A suspended policy that allowed local police to keep much of the assets they confiscate from fellow suspects — even those who have not been convicted or charged with any crime — was reinstated on Monday evening by the Department of Justice.
The notorious “equitable sharing” program permits local cops to use federal law to seize property, possessions, and cash from individuals they suspect of wrongdoing. It was temporarily halted in December.
A DOJ spokesperson, Peter Carr, told the Washington Post that an improved budget situation allowed the department to reinstate the program. Law enforcement organizations heavily lobbied for the restoration of equitable sharing, claiming that cutting off the revenue source made it more difficult to do their jobs.
Police departments typically get a higher return on assets forfeited under federal law than those given up under state law, the Post remarked, collecting as much as 80 percent of the value of items seized under US code.
Civil liberties groups have warned, however, that communities are actually suffering under the program as a result of misaligned interests, with cops depending on seizing assets to fund operations.
“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources,” the ACLU notes on its website. “But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.”
A 2014 Washington Post report revealed just how reliant state and local police departments have been on equitable sharing. Since 2001, they’ve received more than $1.7 billion on the program. The paper identified more than 400 precincts and task forces that rely on wealth confiscated under federal and local laws to fund 20 percent or more of their budgets.
Individuals face enormous difficulties and expenses when they try to recoup assets seized by police, such as arbitrary deadlines and a lack of access to legal counsel. The paper found that only 41 percent of litigants were eventually successful in their efforts.
Scott Bullock, the president of the public interest law firm Institute of Justice told the Post on Monday that the department’s decision to turn the program back on was based on funding, and “not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system.”
During a Senate hearing last April, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Chairman of judiciary committee criticized lavish spending by both local and federal police made possible by asset forfeiture, claiming that whistleblowers have informed him of wrongdoing.
“US Marshals Service is spending asset forfeiture money on lavish office furnishings and facilities, like a $22,000 conference table and a $1.8 million training facility that lies unused nearly eleven months of the year,” Rep. Grassley alleged.
“This kind of cavalier spending is out of control,” he said.