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Justice to End Role in Asset Seizures

But local police could continue undeterred

It's been a stunning practice of lawlessness that you thought could not happen in America yet no less than the U.S. Justice Department was behind it. A program meant to cripple drug traffickers (and mob syndicates before that) by encouraging local law enforcement to confiscate their houses, autos, boats and cash and then sharing in the proceeds has gone badly wrong, with local police departments preying on ordinary citizens and using stolen assets to fill holes in their depleted post-2008 budgets.

We told that story in full in "Law Enforcement's License to Steal" last year, an account that will leave you with another reason to wonder whether those who speak of an emerging "police state" have reason for thinking so. The article recounts how police expand roadside stops for minor or imaginary infractions into auto searches and seizure of whatever was found. Motorists are forced either to sign a waiver that relinquishes ownership of their possessions or else be detained and charged with a felony. Most see no recourse but to move on down the road. If they do try to recover their possessions, they must overcome the reversed norm that they are guilty until they can prove their innocence.

Local police could then contact the Justice Department for "adoption" of a seizure by its Equitable Sharing program, making it a federal matter that trumped whatever state law there might be that prohibited seizures without due process. Equitable Sharing then allowed the cops to keep up to 80% of whatever cash or sold off assets they had grabbed.

It took investigative reports in The New Yorker magazine and The Washington Post as well as pressure from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) to awaken Eric Holder's Justice Department to the highway robbery their program had spawned. Justice says it will discontinue its participation in Equitable Sharing.

The question remains whether state and local police units around the country, now addicted to this new source of revenue, will continue on their own, preying on the civilian populace they are sworn to protect.

1 Comment for “Justice to End Role in Asset Seizures”

  1. David Barnett, Ph.D.

    State asset forfeitures, for alleged criminality, have a long dishonourable history, stretching back thousands of years. [cf. King Ahab and the vinyard of Naboth].

    It should have been obvious to the Supreme Court that the 4th and 5th amendments rendered the 16th century anti-piracy procedure unconstitutional.
    But this is part of a much bigger problem – the inherent conflict of interest created by allowing the government to profit from fines and forfeitures.
    There needs to be a rule that all fines and forfeitures go into a fund inaccessible to any level of government. Perhaps it could go to charity – the exact destination is not important so long as no government connected entity controls it.

    I would apply the same principle to the punitive damages in civil cases – not the plaintiff, nor his lawyer, nor the court, nor the government should have access to the punitive funds levied.

    Remove the incentive to remove the abuse.

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