Justice Department Announces Partial Forfeiture Reform

The Washington Post has just reported that Attorney General Eric Holder today announced that, without evidence that a crime occurred, the Justice Department will end its practice of “adopting” civil asset forfeiture cases brought to the department by state and local enforcement agencies. The usual motive for such “equitable sharing” is to help local police departments to circumvent state restrictions aimed at stopping abuses, which arise because once the property is seized, on mere suspicion that it may have “facilitated” a crime, the local police departments keep it.

Such abuses, brought about by those perverse incentives, have led many states to require that any property so seized be turned over to the state’s general treasury. To get around that, state and local police departments ask the Justice Department to “adopt” the case, after which the assets are then split between the Justice Department and the local police department. Without evidence that a crime occurred, that is the practice that will end.

There are deeper problems with American civil asset forfeiture law, however, starting with the very practice of seizing property on the mere suspicion that it may have “facilitated” a crime. A crime does not have to be proven because it is the property that is said to be “guilty” under this bizarre area of our law, its roots in the Middle Ages. Thus, Volusia County, Florida, police stop motorists going south on I-95 and seize any cash they’re carrying in excess of $100 on suspicion that it’s money to buy drugs. New York City police make DUI arrests and then seize drivers’ cars. District of Columbia police seize a grandmother’s home after her grandson comes from next door and makes a call from the home to consummate a drug deal. Officials seize a home used for prostitution and the previous owner, who took back a second mortgage when he sold the home, loses the mortgage. No crime is ever proven. No prosecution is even begun.

In 1995 Cato published the late Rep. Henry J. Hyde’s book about these abuses, which led to partial reforms of federal law in 2000. But the core of the law remained. And abuses continued under state law. Today’s announcement is an important step toward limiting some of those abuses, but more needs to be done. See here and here for more on this subject.