Justice Department Reins in Civil Asset Forfeiture


The Justice Department has just issued an order that reigns in the civil asset forfeiture program. In case you missed it, civil asset forfeiture is the program that lets police seize any vehicles, houses, or currency that they suspect is associated with crime. They can do this even if the person who had the vehicle, house, or cash is never charged with a crime.

The order basically eliminates the equitable sharing program, which let local police agencies seize assets and then share them with federal agencies like the FBI or DEA.

According to the Washington Post, police agencies across the country have seized more than 3 billion dollars’ worth of property since 2008 under the equitable sharing program. That’s more than the yearly GDP of Belize, Guyana, or Liberia.

Asset Forfeiture Isn’t Dead:

Although the order limits the equitable sharing program, it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. Local police can still seize firearms, ammunition, explosives, or computer equipment associated with child pornography under equitable sharing. The order also doesn’t apply to any joint task forces between federal and local agencies or federal seizure warrants.

Also, most states have their own asset forfeiture programs. Florida’s “Contraband Forfeiture Act” allows the police to seize cash, vessels or equipment if they suspect is the product of illegal activity. The state must then prove that the property was used or obtained in violation of the act by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is the middle of the three burden-of-proofs – higher than “the preponderance of the evidence” (used in most civil cases) but lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt” (used in all criminal cases). If you like percentages, think of the “preponderance of the evidence” as 50.000000000000000000000000000 … 01%, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” as 99.99999999999999999999999 …9%.

Don’t get me wrong – the Justice Department’s ending of the equitable sharing program is a big step forward. But just because that program is over (kind of), it doesn’t mean that police can’t seize assets from people arrested for a crime.