‘$1.2 billion slush fund’: Justice Dept. resumes controversial asset forfeiture ‘equitable sharing’

© U.S. Department of Justice
The Justice Department is lifting its suspension on the civil asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” program, which has allowed local and state police forces to reap a portion of the profits from seizing property from citizens, regardless of their conviction.

The controversial practice allows police to seize and keep cash and property from people who have never been convicted, and in many cases, never charged with wrongdoing under federal rather than state law. Under the federal law, police departments can keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize.

The DOJ suspended payments to law enforcement under the program back in December due to budget cuts included in last year’s spending bill.

“In the months since we made the difficult decision to defer equitable sharing payments because of the $1.2 billion rescinded from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring … payments,” Peter J. Carr, a DOJ spokesman, told The Washington Post on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation argues asset forfeiture helps law enforcement reduce the “incentive for illegal conduct…[and] takes the profit out of crime by helping to eliminate the ability of the offender to command resources necessary to continue illegal activities.”

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984 established the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund to receive the proceeds of forfeiture to pay the costs associated with forfeitures including managing and disposing of property, plus finance certain general investigative expenses.

But the number of times the method has been used is said to have exploded in recent years and become controversial. The Washington Post reported federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets in 2014, “more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year,” prompting the view that police are motivated more by profit and less by justice.

The decision by the DOJ to suspend the program in December had critics thinking it was trying to curtail the practice, but it appears to be about budget bottom lines.

“This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system,” Scott Bullock, president of the Institute of Justice told the Post.

The heads of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorney’s Association and other groups argued in a letter to President Obama in December the funds helped them protect the communities they served.

“The resources provided by the equitable sharing program have allowed agencies to participate in joint task forces to thwart and deter serious criminal activity and terrorism, purchase equipment, provide training, upgrade technology, engage their communities, and better protect their officers,” their letter read.

Another of the program’s outspoken critics is the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the laws “create perverse, unfair, and unconstitutional incentives for law enforcement to build multimillion-dollar slush funds. They spend this money virtually at will, with no meaningful oversight.”

The ACLU said the practice is a violation of due process and that it is often used “to disproportionately target communities of color.”