Great news! From Washington Post:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.
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.
A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity 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.”
News of the policy change surprised advocates who have for a long time unsuccessfully sought to reverse civil asset forfeiture laws, arguing that they undermine core American values, such as property rights and due process.
“It’s high time we put an end to this damaging practice,” said David Harris, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. “It has been a civil-liberties debacle and a stain on American criminal justice.”
Holder’s action comes as members of both parties in Congress are working together to craft legislation to overhaul civil asset forfeiture. On Jan. 9, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) signed a letter calling on Holder to end Equitable Sharing.
Grassley praised Holder’s decision on Friday. “We’re going to have a fairer justice system because of it,” Grassley said. “The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people.”
He said he planned to continue pressing for legislative reforms.
“I commend the department for this step and look forward to working with them on comprehensive forfeiture reform that protects Americans’ property rights,” Sensenbrenner said. “Equitable Sharing has become a tool too often used to bypass state law. ”
Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most powerful — and unusual — law enforcement tools. Police do not need to prove a crime to use it, because it is a civil action against an object, such as currency or a car, rather than a person.
As a consequence, protections common in criminal law do not apply. In fact, owners who want to recover their cash or property generally must show it is theirs and demonstrate it is not tied to crime.
Forfeiture has its basis in British admiralty law, but it became a part of the fight against drugs in the United States beginning in 1970, when Congress allowed police to seize aircraft, boats and other property used to transport narcotics or bought by drug lords with ill-gotten gains.
In the 1980s, the law was expanded to include cash. About the same time, the Justice Department created its Asset Forfeiture Program and began allowing federal agencies to adopt seizures made by state and local authorities. Those changes led to a massive increase in money deposited into the federal forfeitures fund as seizures by local and state police surged. Allegations of police abuses also increased.
Searing reports by the Orlando Sentinel and other newspapers about abuses spurred Congress to pass the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in 2000. But a key change — ending the sharing of seizure proceeds between local police and federal agencies — was cut from the bill after fierce opposition from police and prosecutors. Some lawmakers called the sharing of money a “perverse incentive” for overly aggressive police tactics.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the use of the asset forfeiture law and the Equitable Sharing Program rose to new heights as federal authorities called on local, county and state police to help keep watch on the nation’s highways, not only for drug smugglers but also for terrorists.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security paid private firms millions to train local and state officers in the techniques of an aggressive brand of policing known as “highway interdiction.” That training, developed by the firms, included methods for ferreting out suspicious drivers and coaxing them into granting warrantless searches of vehicles, according to internal company training documents obtained by The Post. The files emphasized the importance of targeting cash.
Holder said seizure adoptions will continue to be employed by local and federal authorities, but only in limited circumstances when public safety is at risk and where local and federal authorities are collaborating in cases clearly involving criminal activity.