As members of Congress continue to work towards new legislation that will overhaul federal asset forfeiture law, Attorney General Eric Holder put an immediate end to a program that allowed local and state law enforcement agencies to use federal law to seize cash, vehicles and other personal property without warrants or any criminal charges.
The program, called Equitable Sharing, permitted local police departments to seize personal property from individuals and reap enormous financial windfalls. After local law enforcement would make a seizure, the case could then be adopted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The program allowed the police department to keep up to 80% of the seized assets with the balance going to federal agencies. Since 2008, local and state police departments have used the program to make over 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth an estimated $3 billion.
It has been widely believed that local police were abusing the program since federal forfeiture law did not require them to have warrants or to have any evidence of criminal activity. A recent Washington Post study found that local police were routinely pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressuring them to agree to warrantless searches and then seizing large amounts of cash without any evidence of wrongdoing. Current federal asset forfeiture law allows such seizures and then forces the owners to prove that the property was legally acquired in order to get it back.
Many states, including Georgia, have higher standards of proof for forfeitures and some require seized proceeds to go into a general fund. Thus, the federal program created huge financial incentives for local police officers to conduct unlawful traffic stops and searches of people they believed would be in possession of large amounts of cash.
The Washington Post study found that over the past 10 years, thousands of innocent law-abiding people have had to fight the government to get their cash and property back, often incurring considerable legal expenses and spending over a year in the process. Many of these individuals were people of color and immigrants who were pulled over in police operations on the nation’s highways aimed at stopping drug dealers, money launderers and terrorists.
In one notable case, a man was stopped in 2012 by Fairfax County (VA) police. He was detained without charges, handcuffed and then stripped of $17,550 in cash that was to be used for equipment and supplies for his barbecue restaurant. He had to hire a lawyer and go to trial where eventually in 2013 a jury found that he was entitled to his money back. In the meantime, however, he lost his restaurant because he had no working capital as a result of the seizure.
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