Federal Program Allowing Local Cops to Seize Assets Despite State Asset Forfeiture Law is Canceled

UPDATED: We have published a retraction/correction concerning this story. The updated content is available here.

Eric Holder has been in many ways an unusual Attorney General. Almost all of those holding the position in recent history have used their position to disparage civil liberties while reducing possibilities for liability for law enforcement personnel. There has been very little change across administrations, regardless of which political party has been in power.

The Obama Administration's appointee for Attorney General was a depature from this model. Not because Holder implemented policies that diverged from the inexorable march toward a police state that had long been in place before Holder's appointment, but because he spoke and acted as if he did. Holder was prone to bold pronouncements that were completely out of touch with reality. Holder made speeches decrying the consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing, while taking next to no action to prevent his underlings from taking advantage of such laws. DOJ representatives and White House officials have claimed to have ended the drug war over and over and over again, despite increasing the amount of money spent on incarcerating drug offenders.

We make a point of this not to bash Holder and the Obama administration for their inaction, but to point out how this history makes yesterday's announcement from the Justice Department all the more surprising. Yesterday Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would be ending a 7-year-old program called "Equitable Sharing". Despite the lovey-dovey title, this program was used by state and local police agencies to circumvent regional laws concerning asset forfeiture by involving federal agencies in the seizure process. Let's explore exactly what that means.

Most people in the United States believe that, in order for the government to take your property from you, a court must find you guilty of something. In most cases, that is true. Unless the police decide to seize your property using the rubrick of Civil Asset Forfeiture. With civil forfeiture, police charge the property with a crime, not you (among other things this leads to bizarre criminal case names like The United States of America Vs Ten Thousand Dollars in Cash). Also unlike a criminal case, there is no presumption of innocence. In order to get your property back, you have to prove that your property was not involved in some sort of crime - a crime that the government doesn't need to prove happened, by the way. And just to make things interesting, you won't be trying to convince a judge that your property is innocent - you have to convince the prosecutor.

Over the years, its become increasingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the civil forfeiture system is ripe for abuse. Just in case all of the details we just went over didn't seem fishy enough for you, bear in mind that police departments get to keep the money that they seize and buy things like boats, cars and assault rifles with the money, and you can imagine how something like this can easily get out of control. Calling asset forfeiture in its current form a license to steal is neither hyperbolic nor inaccurate. You may want to pause to think before you buy something from a "police auction": after all, the next car up on the auction block could be your own.

More and more states have been taking action to deal with the problem by passing limits on when assets can be seized. Even better, some of these reforms insure that police cannot directly spend the money that. Many states have had such reforms on the books for well over a decade. It was that reform-minded mindset which lead to the creation of the "Equitable Sharing" program.

"Equitable Sharing" provided state and local police with an easy-to-use mechanism to declare local and state investigations federal investigations for the sole purpose of seizing assets. Because the Federal government has no asset forfeiture restrictions, federal law enforcement agencies come in, seize the assets that the local cops directed them to, and then provide those same local cops with a commission (on average of 80%) for their trouble. Horrifically, cops all across the country were using Equitable Sharing to avoid asset forfeiture laws restrictions and spending rules. This was not a small program: over $3 billion in cash and property were seized and paid back to local cops through Equitable Sharing.

“Over time, however, the tactic [asseit forfeiture] has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.” John Yoder and Brad Cates, two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office under President Ronald Reagan, who called for an end to the Equitable Sharing program in a recent Washington Post op-ed

The move to cancel Equitable Sharing will force police agencies all across the country to obey their own asset forfeiture laws for the first time in nearly 7 years. The property of over 55,000 people was seized through Equitable Sharing. Perhaps most importantly, this is the first real law enforcement reform implemented by Holder's Justice Department during the Obama administration.

The issue goes beyond the theft of personal property without due process of law. The funds acquired from forfeiture could be spent by the police departments that seized the assets with no-strings-attached. In practice the funds have been spent on everything from the ludicrous, like margarita mixers, to the truly dangerous, like joint drug task forces that receive their sole payment from seized funds and operate outside departmental chain of command.

What on Earth does all this have to do with Puppycide, anyway?

Our goal here at the Puppycide Database Project is to study all police uses of deadly force against animals and provide that information to the public. The longer our research goes on, the more convinced we become that Puppycide may be a symptom of a larger problem with modern United States law enforcement.

The joint task forces that are funded by forfeiture funds we mentioned earlier have been a repeated issue in our research. Such organizations not only flaunt state and federal records laws, they occasionally are so bold that they deny their own existence. Our efforts to put together accurate statistics related to police use of force depends on police departments fulfilling their reporting requirements or on journalists and first hand accounts when police departments fail to meet those requirements. By operating beyond a departmental chain of command, outside of jurisdictional boundaries, denying their own existence and refusing records requests it is incredibly difficult for organizations like PuppycideDB to determine where and how these joint task forces are operating. These new types of policing threaten to make it impossible to maintain oversight of any kind. If these task forces are threatened by organizations like ours, that only set out to count their raids and shootings, imagine how they might react to a special prosecutor attempting to impose actual consequences.