U.S. re­vives for­fei­tures pro­gram for the po­lice

Cops once again can seize prop­erty even with­out con­vic­tions or charges be­ing filed

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CHRISTO­PHER INGRAHAM

The Jus­tice De­part­ment an­nounced Wednes­day that it will be restart­ing a fed­eral as­set for­fei­ture pro­gram that had been shut down by the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Known as “adop­tive for­fei­ture,” the pro­gram — which gives po­lice depart­ments greater lee­way to seize prop­erty of those sus­pected of a crime, even if they’re never charged with or con­victed of one — was a sig­nif­i­cant source of rev­enue for lo­cal law en­force­ment.

In the 12 months be­fore At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder shut down the pro­gram in 2015, state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties took in $65 mil­lion that they shared with fed­eral agen­cies, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of fed­eral data by the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice, a pub­lic in­ter­est law firm that rep­re­sents for­fei­ture de­fen­dants.

While adop­tive for­fei­tures amount to a small per­cent­age of the an­nual multi­bil­lion-dol­lar for­fei­ture haul, they’ve come un­der harsh crit­i­cism for al­low­ing lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to side­step state guide­lines and in­stead take cash and prop­erty un­der much more per­mis­sive fed­eral rules.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice, 13 states have passed laws re­quir­ing pros­e­cu­tors to ob­tain a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion be­fore au­thor­i­ties can per­ma­nently seize an

in­di­vid­ual’s prop­erty. Un­der fed­eral law, how­ever, au­thor­i­ties can take cash, ve­hi­cles, homes and any other prop­erty and keep it for them­selves, with­out ever charg­ing the sus­pect with a crime.

Un­der fed­eral guide­lines, the state and lo­cal agen­cies mak­ing adop­tive seizures are en­ti­tled up to 80 per­cent of the pro­ceeds, while fed­eral agen­cies would re­ceive at least a 20 per­cent cut. The me­dian value of those seizures was about $9,000, not ex­actly in­dica­tive of ma­jor drug-traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tions.

Some of the seizures were as low as a few hun­dred dol­lars, in­clud­ing $107 taken by Kana­kee, Ill., au­thor­i­ties March 12, 2014. That money was turned over to the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is en­ti­tled to keep $21.40 of it, with the re­main­ing $85.60 to be re­turned to Kana­kee po­lice.

These num­bers com­port with nu­mer­ous other in­ves­ti­ga­tions that have found that for­fei­ture ef­forts tend to tar­get poor neigh­bor­hoods. Be­tween 2012 and 2017, for in­stance, the me­dian value of as­sets seized by Cook County, Ill., po­lice

was just over $1,000. A 2015 ACLU anal­y­sis of cash for­fei­tures in Phil­a­del­phia turned up a me­dian value of $192.

The small dol­lar val­ues of­ten at stake un­der­cut for­fei­ture de­fend­ers’ claims that the prac­tice is nec­es­sary to dis­rupt ma­jor crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions. A 2015 In­sti­tute for Jus­tice re­port found that be­tween 1997 and 2013, 87 per­cent of the De­part­ment of Jus­tice’s for­fei­tures did not re­quire any crim­i­nal charge or con­vic­tion.

But the adop­tive for­fei­ture pro­gram came un­der par­tic­u­larly in­tense crit­i­cism be­cause it al­lowed state and lo­cal po­lice to side­step state-level for­fei­ture over­hauls. The Jus­tice De­part­ment’s 2015 pol­icy change ef­fec­tively elim­i­nated the adop­tion pro­gram, and adop­tions dropped from $65 mil­lion the prior year to just $15,000 in the next twelve months, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice’s anal­y­sis.

But the changes an­nounced Wednes­day turn that cash spigot back on. Since the 2015 pol­icy change, many more states have over­hauled their for­fei­ture poli­cies mak­ing it harder to seize cash and prop­erty.

That means that more law en­force­ment agen­cies now have the in­cen­tive to side­step those changes via the re­in­stated adop­tive for­fei­ture process.

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