Shortly before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it was suspending a program which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to claim part of the assets seized in federal law enforcement cases.
Known as DOJ’s “equitable sharing” program, the somewhat controversial practice lets state and local law enforcers stake a claim under federal law against money, vehicles, real estate or other property seized from persons suspected of federal criminal or civil law violations. In the most recent fiscal year, the Justice Department collected over $23 billion in cases involving the FBI, DEA, ATF and other federal enforcement agencies.
Asset forfeiture activities have long been criticized by civil libertarians, the defense bar and some members of Congress. Opponents note that all but about one-seventh of the seizures come in civil, not criminal cases; even in criminal cases, asset seizures usually come before an indictment, much less a conviction. In some cases, no charges are ever brought against the individual whose property has been seized, who may nevertheless experience substantial difficulties in trying to defend against a civil forfeiture action.
State and local law enforcers had warmed to the DOJ program, and some rely on it for funding a major share of their budgets, especially anti-drug and white-collar crime task forces. Some critics of the DOJ asset forfeiture “equity-sharing” program believe some state and local law enforcers have expanded and prioritized their enforcement efforts so as to maximize such income.
From the viewpoint of state and local police, there are significant advantages to pursuing seized assets through DOJ’s program, rather than bringing a state forfeiture action. First, standards under state forfeiture laws are often more difficult to meet. Also, the DOJ program typically brings a bigger payday than available under state laws. The DOJ program can bring a state or local police force as much as 80% of the value of the seized items, while recovery rates are lower under state laws.
DOJ’s suspension of the program was not due to any apparent doubts that it promotes non-federal law enforcers’ cooperation on federal cases. Instead, the agency said in a December 21 memo to state and local law enforcement agencies announcing the change, the real problem was money. The federal budget bill cleared in November chopped out $746 million from the funding for DOJ’s equity-sharing program, and the omnibus appropriations bill Congress passed and President Obama signed in mid-December sliced away another $458 million.
In announcing the program’s suspension, the head of DOJ’s section on asset forfeiture and money laundering blamed it on the combined loss of $1.2 billion in funding, and held out the hope DOJ might resume payments if it later got more funding. That did little to mollify state and local law enforcement groups; six major groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National District Attorneys Association, sent a joint letter to the White House, Congressional leaders, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, calling the funding cuts “shortsighted” and predicting they would “have a significant and immediate impact” on law enforcement agencies’ ability to protect their communities and provide needed services. IACP also told its members it had not been consulted on the move.