January 16, 2015

The US Atty General just dealt a big blow to local ‘policing-for-profit’ programs

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The Drug Policy Alliance comes with this announcement today:

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order establishing a new policy prohibiting federal agencies from accepting civil asset forfeiture assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies unless the owner is convicted of a crime. The U.S. Treasury Department, which has its own forfeiture program, is issuing a similar policy.  The Department of Justice becomes involved after a state or local law enforcement agency seizes property pursuant to state law and requests that a federal agency take the seized asset and forfeit it under federal law.

For years, advocates have criticized the Department of Justice practice of accepting and processing seized assets such as cash, cars and other property from state and local law enforcement agencies through its Equitable Sharing Program, which retains 20 percent of the proceeds from the seizure received from a state or local law enforcement agency and returns 80 percent of the proceeds to the state or local law enforcement agency that initiated the seizure. The practice has enabled some state and local law enforcement to bypass state laws that prohibit police departments from keeping the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture or impose a stricter legal standard for seizing property.  The Washington Post has recently documented widespread abuse of this practice, usually as part of carrying out the war on drugs.

From today’s Washington Post:

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“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.

The issue has been controversial in New Mexico.

Abq Journal

from Albuquerque Journal

The number of seizures has risen sharply in recent years, causing many to suggest that local officers are engaging in policing for profit.

From the Albuquerque Journal:

Bernalillo County in 2011 was ordered to pay $3 million in damages after a judge found deputies violated state law by confiscating money during traffic stops. The money went back to the county after federal forfeiture proceedings.

Today’s decision is a big step forward in the war on drugs.  Adding due process requirements to seizure is likely to greatly lower the amount of money local and state departments have to spend on low-level drug enforcement efforts.

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