DOJ suspends asset forfeiture profit-sharing with local police, cites budget cuts

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The Department of Justice has announced a moratorium on splitting gains made from its civil asset forfeiture program with local law enforcement. Budget cuts of $1.2 billion made keeping the practice “impossible,” the DOJ said, upsetting police groups.

While federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the US Marshals will continue using the legal tool, the “equitable sharing payments” will not return until “a later date should the budget picture improve," according to the DOJ.

Civil asset forfeiture is the taking of property by authorities who suspect it has been used in a crime, and it is often a profitable routine. When large sums of cash aren’t being directly collected as alleged drug money, other items like cars or houses can eventually be liquidated to fund police pet projects.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police was not pleased with the decision.

"We want to make clear that neither the IACP, nor any of our law enforcement partners, were consulted regarding this announcement. The position of the IACP is this decision is detrimental to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve," the group e-mailed its members in response to the DOJ suspending the sharing program.

The Asset Forfeiture Program Funds were first slashed by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 last month, cutting $746 million. The next decrease came in the omnibus $1 trillion spending bill known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, which cut another $438 million.

"We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing while continuing to operate the Program and meet our other fiscal obligations,” the DOJ wrote. "Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two reductions totaling $1.2 billion made that impossible."

St. Louis, Missouri Police Chief Sam Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his officers would continue to assist the feds despite missing out on the monetary reward.

"I've never had a task force in place as a revenue generator, the criminal aspect is important," Dotson said. "Now we are disincentivized, but we will still go out and do our jobs, but now the federal government will keep 100 percent of the money."

Without providing an exact figure, Dotson told the Post-Dispatch his agency reaped hundreds of thousands dollars every year on the program, spending the proceeds on new vehicles, Tasers, and moving to a new headquarters. He also said losing that income could slow hiring of new officers, arguing the DOJ “just penalized us.”

As the issue of police brutality and accountability has garnered more attention in recent years, so has what critics call “policing for profit.” Last year, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver pushed civil asset forfeiture into the mainstream, highlighting how another Missouri police department made use of the federally distributed money.

The DOJ’s announcement was “bad news” to Chief Special Deputy Dennis Wayne of Bradford County Sheriff’s Office, whose Facebook post included friends commenting, "Unfortunately, this is the type of behavior expected from an Administration that HATES OUR BRAVE POLICE OFFICERS.” Another comment read, "The war against law enforcement is unbelievable."

Bad news at this moment for law enforcement funding. Late yesterday afternoon, the IACP participated in a conference...

Posted by Dennis Wayne on Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The National Sheriffs' Association issued a statement saying it was “shocked and disappointed.”

“The protective capabilities of our nation are being downgraded at every level in never ending attacks on law enforcement,” the statement said. “From this rescission to the early release of thousands of federal inmates to the restrictions on surplus military equipment available to state and local law enforcement, the safety and security of our communities is being put at risk."