Eric Holder made headlines this week when he announced a new policy prohibiting state and local governments from using federal civil asset forfeiture laws for most cases. The Washington Post reported, “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.” The DOJ’s Equitable Sharing program has allowed thousands of local and state police agencies to have seized nearly $3 billion in cash and property since 2008. Using Equitable Sharing, a state or local police department or drug task force would seize property and then have that property adopted by a federal agency. The agency making the seizure would then be allowed to keep up to 80 percent of the value of the items confiscated.
In an order released by the Attorney General’s Office, Holder stated, “Federal adoption of property seized by state or local law enforcement under state law is prohibited, except for property that directly relates to public safety concerns, including ﬁrearms, ammunition, explosives, and property associated with child pornography.” These exceptions represent a small percentage of the seizures made under the program.
Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading legal advocate against civil forfeiture, said, “This important change in policy will strengthen protections for property owners who stand to lose their cash, cars, and other property without being convicted of or even charged with a crime. But it is essential that greater protections for property owners must follow at the federal level and in the states to ensure that Americans are no longer victimized by civil forfeiture.”
Additionally, Holder also stated that his order does not apply to seizures by state and local authorities working together with or on behalf of a federal agency, nor does it “limit the ability of state and local agencies to pursue the forfeiture of assets pursuant to their respective state laws.”
IJ’s President and General Counsel, Chip Mellor, added, “Civil forfeiture should not exist in a country that values the principles of private property rights and due process.”
While every state has either civil or criminal asset forfeiture laws, many police departments preferred the federal adoption program because they received a higher percentage of the value than they would have received under state law. Holder even mentioned the presence of state laws as a reason the federal program is “less necessary.” The Post added, “The policy will touch police and local budgets in every state. Since 2001, about 7,600 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments and task forces have participated in Equitable Sharing. For hundreds of police departments and sheriff’s offices, the seizure proceeds accounted for 20 percent or more of their annual budgets in recent years.”
It should be clear that Eric Holder isn’t serious about real reform of civil asset forfeiture laws. If he were, he would have halted all use of the scheme used to unjustly deprive people of their property, when they haven’t been convicted of a crime.