In December 2015, the Justice Department announced that it was suspending its "Equitable Sharing Program," which allowed local law enforcement agencies to prosecute civil asset forfeiture cases under federal law rather than at the state level in order to avoid local restrictions and reform efforts, such as bills that recently passed in Michigan and Florida.
Now, the department is bringing the program back.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice that allows police to seize and keep money and goods, lining their own coffers in the process. A ProPublica report from 2013 noted that those subjected to civil forfeiture claims are often lower-income and/or minorities "without the financial resources or legal know-how to protect their assets." Cash and goods, including homes, are sometimes kept even if no criminal charges are brought, and the money is used at the discretion of police and prosecutors. A high-profile New Yorker article by Sarah Stillman on the practice, also from 2013, explains:
In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
Per the official definition of civil forfeiture, the suit is "against the property. The property is the defendant and no criminal charge against the owner is necessary." This leads to what Stillman calls "improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins." In more common cases, it'd mean United States v. an amount of money seized, or United States v. the address of a home.
Meanwhile, accountability for what is done with the money (or profits from goods) seized is low. ProPublica dug into records from the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office about forfeiture spending in Philadelphia. Those records showed "that the bulk of Philadelphia’s forfeiture money goes to 'salaries' (the report does not say whose), and 'municipal task force support.'" There's also evidence that police seize more during periods of economic hardship.
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The Equitable Sharing Program, which the Justice Department is now reviving, allowed police to skirt more stringent local laws about civil forfeiture by pursuing the suits under federal law—usually, according to The Washington Post, "in instances where local law enforcement officers have a relationship with federal authorities as part of a joint task force." The Post also points out that federal laws are more permissive than local laws when it comes to how much of the seized assets authorities are allowed to keep, sometimes up to 80%.
The program wasn't technically shut down in December; payouts from the federal fund used to pay local authorities were simply suspended indefinitely because of a "rescission" of funds. On Monday Peter J. Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, announced that since December "the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring equitable sharing payments."
And resume they have. Already, in Nebraska, a crime lab will continue to be funded by civil forfeiture money. But in case you're concerned, here's what the Omaha World-Herald reports they spend most of that seized money on:
Omaha has used its funds for travel to conferences and to purchase color guard uniforms, office chairs and a device that helps gather evidence from cellphones. In addition to the crime lab, the State Patrol has used its money primarily for training and to attend conferences.
Hope they're good conferences.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org