I can’t believe I’m going to say this but here goes. Ahem. Cough. Uh, is this thing on?
Hi. Um … here we go …
Eric Holder has done something right.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.
Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.
The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
I’ve talked about civil asset forfeiture many times. This is the vile practice where law enforcement officials seize your money, your car or your bank accounts and … well, basically keep it. You never have to be charged with a crime. They never have to prove the assets came from crime. They just take it, like a highwayman. And they are perfectly free to use those assets for any purpose, including, in one case, a margarita machine.
Some states have trained to “reign this in”. Granted, they haven’t reigned it in by say, abolishing it. But they’ve at least tried to redirect the money from going directly to law enforcement to going to schools or something. The Feds responded with their Equitable Sharing Program, where the police turn the money to the Feds to bypass state laws. The Feds keep a cut and then turn it right back over to the police. That’s the program Holder is suspending.
Now, to be fair, this is a directive. The next AG could reverse it. Hell, Holder could. Let’s not mistake this for, say, Congress passing a law to abolish it. Radley Balko breaks down the decision further, pointing out that federal investigations — such as investigations by the DEA or IRS — will still be able to use this tool. And, in fact, local law enforcement will be able to use Equitable Sharing when they are part of a federal or joint investigation. In fact, Holder’s justice department recently successfully argued before the Supreme Court, in Kaley, that the government could seize your assets before trial to keep you from hiring a good lawyer.
So let’s not dance in the streets just yet. But this is a step in the right direction. The next thing that needs to happen is for Congress to abolish the practice completely. Asset forfeiture may have made sense when we were seizing the 18th century smuggling ships of overseas booze barons. It makes no sense in a modern context. If the Supreme Court won’t abolish it, Congress must and should.