Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has now barred local and state police from using federal laws to seize cash and property without evidence of a crime. Civil asset forfeiture began three decades ago as part of the so-called war on drugs.
Since 2008, police agencies have seized more than $3 billion under a program called Equitable Sharing. The program allows police officers to take property, which is then “adopted” by federal agencies; the proceeds are shared by federal, state and local agencies.
According to the Washington Post, police and drug task forces retain up to 80 percent of the proceeds. “With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement.
Illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography can still be seized by law enforcement.
Police can still make seizures under state law, but the federal program was far easier to use and most of the proceeds went to local and state police agencies. Many states require proceeds to go into a general state fund.
A Justice official, who spoke with Washington Post on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
Holder went on to say “Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately — providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations.”
“This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”