Well, that didn't last long. The Justice Department suspended its equitable sharing asset forfeiture program in December due to budget cuts, then announced at the end of March that it would be resuming the program.
The controversial program allows state and local police agencies to partner with federal law enforcement agencies in order to bypass stricter state laws limiting civil asset forfeiture and receive a larger portion of the assets. In California, for example, police may retain 66.25 percent of assets seized, but by partnering with federal agencies they may keep 80 percent of the proceeds.
Civil asset forfeiture was designed to allow police to help punish lawbreakers, such as drug dealers, by seizing the ill-gotten gains of their illegal operations. Too often, however, it has been used to target property of people never even charged with — much less convicted of — a crime.
"By offering substantial payouts to participating agencies, equitable sharing incentivizes law enforcement to evade state laws and pad their budgets," Institute for Justice attorney Darpana Sheth said in a statement. "Local and state law enforcement agencies should be adequately funded, but their budgets should not in any way depend on property seizures."
This is especially true in cases like the young man whose $16,000 life savings, which he intended to put toward his dream of starting a music video company, was seized by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on an Amtrak train from Michigan on its way to Los Angeles. Or the elderly West Philadelphia couple whose home was seized because their son, unbeknownst to them, allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana to an informant three times from the family's front porch.
Last year, the law enforcement lobbying machine turned a near-unanimous state Senate support for Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell's Senate Bill 443, which would have closed the federal equitable sharing loophole, into a stunning 44-24 defeat in the Assembly. The bill will be reconsidered this year, and was highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union of California during its Lobby Day in Sacramento on Monday.
No one should have their property seized by the government without being convicted of a crime. California should follow the lead of New Mexico and pass THE SB 443 bill to prevent further abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER