Feds restart civil asset forfeiture sharing program months after shutting it down

The federal government is bringing back its Equitable Sharing Program just months after shutting it down. The “Department of Justice” announced the decision to bring the civil asset forfeiture program back this week, meaning participating local and state law enforcement agencies will enjoy getting a piece of the pie whenever a task force seizes property.

The Department of Justice is pleased to announce that, effective immediately, the Department is resuming Equitable Sharing payments to State, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. As you know, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 included a $746 million permanent reduction, or “rescission,” that, when combined with the additional rescission of $458 million contained in the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law in December 2015, reduced Asset Forfeiture Program funds by $1.2 billion. Those rescissions threatened the financial solvency of the Assets Forfeiture Fund, and forced the Department to take cost-cutting steps across all discretionary programs, including on December 21, 2015, the deferral of Equitable Sharing payments.

A lot of people are probably sitting here going, “So what? The people they’re seizing items from have committed crimes.” That’s not true. Criminal asset forfeiture involves seizing items from people who are charged for a crime. Civil asset forfeiture is completely different with the DOJ defining it as action taken against the property itself because it may have been involved in a crime. No charges against any person is needed. This goes against the Fourth and Fifth Amendments because it violates the search and seizure clause and it deprives property from someone without due process.

So why do authorities do it? For the cash, of course. Law enforcement seized $3.9B in property in civil asset forfeiture in 2014, while only seizing $697M in criminal asset forfeiture. This includes a case out of Philadelphia where a family lost their $350K home because their son happened to sell $40 worth of heroin, even though the family told CNN they didn’t know what the 22-year-old was doing.

A month-and-a-half later police came back — this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourvelises and their children out on the street that day. Authorities came with the electric company in tow to turn off the power and even began locking the doors with screws, the Sourvelises say. Authorities won’t comment on the exact circumstances because of pending litigation regarding the case.

Philadelphia eventually did the right thing by giving the property back to the home owners, along with reaching a partial settlement. This is still legalized theft. The government decided it wanted to seize the home because the son (who didn’t own said home) pleaded no contest to a crime. I’d understand if they decided to seize the son’s computer (if it had been used to set up the crime), but grabbing his parents’ home is beyond ridiculous.

The good news is states are redoing civil asset forfeiture laws to make it harder for police to grab property. The bad news is the federal government hasn’t taken steps to solve their own penchant for seizing property, which is why DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program is execrable. As Reason’s Scott Shackford writes, it lets local and state law enforcement slip around state law because there’s been no federal civil asset forfeiture reform. So if a local police agency decides to take someone’s property, all it has to do is get the feds to file charges against the property. Thanks joint task forces!

There’s nothing wrong with government seizing someone’s property if they’ve been charged of a crime. But going after a piece of property without charging the owner is ludicrous and unAmerican. It’s why the Fourth Amendment was written and why James Otis resigned from his position as Advocate General during colonial times over the British use of “Writs of Assistance” to seize property. The good news is there seems to be movement on reforming federal civil asset forfeiture bills. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is working on overhauling the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which will hopefully get through both the House and Senate and become law. But it’s got to be more action over talk, especially since politicians like to appear to be “pro-law enforcement.” This is why people need to be active in lobbying their elected representatives in passing civil asset forfeiture reform. If we aren’t secure in our homes, what’s to stop law enforcement from seizing our own property?

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