The last it was heard, the police were supposed to prevent stealing, not become thieves themselves.
The Justice Department has announced its decision to bring back one of its most controversial programs—the “Equitable Sharing Program,” which allows law enforcement officers to seize money and goods from citizens they deem guilty of felony and funnel millions of worth of property assets to line their own coffers— which was suspended in Dec. 2015.
The civil forfeiture law is notorious for targeting lower-income groups and minorities without the financial or legal resources to protect their assets. Cash and other assets, including homes and cars, are kept even if no criminal charges are brought to the front and are used at the police’s discretion.
As civil asset forfeiture isn’t a criminal proceeding, the property owners are given no right to a public defendant and the system is highly prejudiced — fundamentally forcing the owners to prove their innocence or pay huge fees to retrieve their possessions. Some states even demand cash bonds or make the victim wait for several months to challenge a property seizure.
The act is a bad news for criminal justice reformers. The program incentivizes “policing for profit,” encouraging law enforcement officers to focus on implementing laws that allow them the opportunity to seize property to bolster their budgets (e.g. busting a drug gang) over crimes that actually directly harm others (e.g. investigating homicides). Additionally, it permits local police agencies to turn to federal government in order to by-pass state-level restrictions on how property may be seized and distributed.
Under the Justice Department policies, the police force can keep up to 80 percent of their seized assets— a number which is often higher than what their state-level law permits.
An example of how much the “Equitable Sharing Program” is abused can be seen by the fact that the dollar value of assets seized by law enforcement agencies is now greater than the value of losses reported in burglaries annually.
It is worthwhile to see if a state proposes reforms to asset forfeiture to allegedly make it easier for citizens to defend themselves, or whether it also prevents police agencies to turning to federal laws to sidestep these reforms.