Justice Department ends asset seizure program

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday banned federal agency forfeiture of assets seized by state and local police agencies, dramatically restricting a program that has provided billions of dollars to law enforcement authorities over the years. Under the program, Georgia agencies have received more than $130 million since 2008.

The ban, Holder said, is the first step in a comprehensive review of the Justice Department's asset forfeiture program, which allows police agencies to confiscate personal property suspected of being tied to criminal activity. Only seizures of items directly related to public safety concerns — such as firearms, explosives and property associated with child pornography — will continue, according to a Justice Department news release.

A similar asset forfeiture program by the U.S. Treasury Department also will impose the new restrictions, Holder said.

A bipartisan group of Congressmen a week ago had urged Holder to end the program, concerned that police were seizing property without evidence that a crime had occurred. "We also recommend that you implement additional procedural safeguards to make sure the property of innocent Americans is not being swept up in overzealous asset forfeiture," says the letter, signed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis, and John Conyers, D-Mich.

Law enforcement agencies will still be able to seize assets under state forfeiture programs. But the popular federal program known as Equitable Sharing now faces big constraints. The ban ends a controversial practice called "adoption," where local agencies send the paperwork for certain seizures to the Justice Department, which performs the administrative work and receives 20 percent of the proceeds. Critics complained it let agencies sidestep state restrictions to prevent abuses.

In fiscal 2013 alone, Georgia agencies received $11.8 million through Equitable Sharing. The Atlanta Police Department, in fiscal 2013, received about $1 million through the Justice program and $96,000 through Treasury, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Over the years, some smaller agencies have done particularly well. Doraville, for example, received about $1.7 million in cash through the program from 2008 to 2010, while Fayette County received $2.6 million over three years in the mid-2000s, according to audits.

Georgia law enforcement has been wary of attempts to change any forfeiture procedures. Officers have the option to seize cash and cars for violations of state or federal law, and sheriffs successfully defeated a bill in 2014 that would have tightened state rules on reporting and spending.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, a past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said the Justice Department handed crooks a victory. Courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of asset seizures, he said. “Every hoodlum, especially the dope trafficers, from Bar Harbor to the Baja, and Seattle to Sunset Key, will party tonight! Crime pays and it will pay handsomely without any fear of federal impunity now,” he wrote in an email.

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said that law enforcement uses proceeds to buy such things as bulletproof vests and cars, but because of Holder’s actions, that funding may now dry out. “He’s not a law enforcement person out on the street,” Rotondo said. “If he were, he would certainly recognize you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out if someone’s committed a crime.”

In a written statement, Atlanta police said the policy change may affect its ability to fund special purchases that fall outside the normal budgeting process. The impact will depend on the number of cases that fall outside the restrictions, the statement says.

But the Institute for Justice said that asset forfeiture created perverse incentives, leading to policing for profit. With civil forfeiture, an individual doesn’t have to be arrested or convicted for that person’s property to be taken. But to get it back, the owner must prove it was acquired legally.

The new policy’s greatest impact will be to reduce abuses during traffic stops, said Scott Bullock, an attorney with the institute. But he noted that the decision will not end seizures under state law or those by joint task forces that include federal agencies. “We think it is great that this policy has been adopted, but we don’t want that to be an excuse for not following up on that with other significant changes,” he said.

Federal and state asset forfeiture programs have come under increased criticism in recent years.

In 2011, a Texas district attorney was accused of shaking down black and Hispanic motorists and of allowing suspected drug runners and money launderers to escape criminal prosecution if they would turn over their cash. In one case, a man accused of transporting 15 kilos of cocaine and more than $80,000 in cash got probation after forfeiting the money, the Associated Press reported.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2013 found that there was little oversight over how seized funds were spent under the federal program, despite strict rules. The Fulton County District Attorney's Office spent money on parties and perks, as well as home security equipment for the DA, the AJC reported. And in Troup County, a sheriff who lost a primary election used federal forfeiture funds for a $2 million spending spree during the final months of his term.

This past September, a Washington Post investigation of the federal programs found that police had seized about $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It found that local and state police pulled drivers over for minor traffic violations, and seized large amounts of cash without evidence of criminal activity.

Money was spent on weapons, communications equipment, armored vehicles, electronic surveillance equipment and travel, among other things, the Post reported. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department, for example, reported that it 2013 it had spent about $175,000 on electronic surveillance, according to records the newspaper obtained.