The troubling return of an asset seizure program

The Observer editorial board

Although asset forfeiture can help pay for valuable police resources, such as body cameras for CMPD officers, a federal forfeiture program needs to be reformed.
Although asset forfeiture can help pay for valuable police resources, such as body cameras for CMPD officers, a federal forfeiture program needs to be reformed. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Late last year, the Justice Department announced it was halting a controversial program that allowed local enforcement officers to seize and keep money or property they suspect had been used in or derived from criminal activity. Police could keep that property without a conviction – or even without arresting someone.

The program was called, without irony, the “Equitable Sharing Program,” and law enforcement that participated had taken in more than $4 billion in such seizures since 2006. But the program was ripe for abuse, not to mention constitutionally problematic, which is why everyone from congressional leaders to civil libertarians have urged the Justice Department to reconsider it.

That’s not why Justice halted the program in December, however. It was paused because budget cuts had made it difficult for the feds to pay the local authorities their cut of the seized assets.

That’s apparently changed. On Monday, the Justice Department announced it was resuming the program.

Here’s how it works: Under civil forfeiture laws, if police suspect you of a crime – or even of being in the planning stages of one – they can seize the assets they believe are involved in that crime. The tool is well-intended; it helps police sap the resources of drug traffickers, and police say it’s used thoughtfully and without abuse.

Some states, including North Carolina, place limits on the practice. In fact, North Carolina has one of the country’s stronger asset forfeiture laws, according to the Institute for Justice, which tracks the issue nationwide. N.C. law permits the practice only when a person has been convicted of a crime.

Under the Equitable Sharing Program, however, police in North Carolina can ignore state statutes and pursue forfeiture under federal law instead. Police then get to keep up to 80 percent of the seized assets.

That money comes in handy for local police departments, including in Charlotte, which has earmarked money from its asset forfeiture fund to help pay for body cameras for officers.

That’s why, when the Justice Department paused its forfeiture program in December, law enforcement groups protested that the decision would not only inhibit crime fighting, but also the ability to purchase equipment, provide training and upgrade technology.

But no matter what good uses the money might go toward, the Equitable Sharing Program is a troubling dodge of due process requirements. It also leads to abuse: A 2014 Washington Post report found that police across the country seized cash from motorists they pulled over without search warrants or indictments. In a startling 41 percent of cases in which the seizures were challenged, the government returned the money.

North Carolina lawmakers should follow the lead of a handful of other states and forbid law enforcement from transferring seized property to federal authorities unless the state’s forfeiture criteria has been satisfied.

Meanwhile, Congress should urge the Justice Department to tighten the Equitable Sharing Program. Asset forfeiture should be a tool that helps fight crime, not one that denies basic rights.