Civil asset forfeiture—the process by which police can legally take your house from you because your son bought $40 worth of drugs, or steal your car or your money without charging you with a crime—was dealt a serious blow today after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that state and local police departments would be all but barred from seizing assets under a particular draconian federal law.
Holder specifically addressed a Department of Justice program called Equitable Sharing, which allows police departments to seize property or money from suspects without making an arrest, then funnels the vast majority of that property or money back to the police department itself, with the rest going to federal agencies. Theoretically, it's used to take weapons or mansions or cars from drug dealers, or to get stolen property back to its rightful owner, but in practice—as Sarah Stillman documented at length in a 2012 New Yorker article—police often strip people of their belongs with little regard for whether they've actually done anything wrong. In one case, a family's house was taken from them because their son sold $20 worth of weed to a police informant:
Around 5 P.M. on July 19th, Leon, Sr., was in his bedroom recovering from surgery when he was startled by a loud noise. "I thought the house was blowing up," he recalls. The police "had some sort of big, long club and four guys hit the door with it, and knocked the whole door right down." SWAT-team officers in riot gear were raiding his home. One of the officers placed Leon, Jr., in handcuffs and said, "Apologize to your father for what you've done." Leon, Jr., was taken off to jail, where he remains, awaiting trial.
The police returned about a month after the raid. Owing to the allegations against Leon, Jr., the state was now seeking to take the Adamses' home and to sell it at a biannual city auction, with the proceeds split between the district attorney's office and the police department. All of this could occur even if Leon, Jr., was acquitted in criminal court; in fact, the process could be completed even before he stood trial.
Mary Adams was at a loss.
According to the Washington Post, local and state police have made 55,000 seizures valuing $3 billion under Equitable Sharing since 2008.
Holder's decision won't end civil forfeiture entirely, however: many states have their own forfeiture laws, and the DOJ will still allow for the seizure of things like weapons and child porn, and in other situations when "public safety is at risk" or there is clear evidence of criminal activity, the Post notes. But many of those state laws don't direct property back to police departments, as the federal policy does, but deposit it in the state's general fund instead—hopefully narrowing the possibility that cops will take some guys Hummer just because it would look bitchin' with the PD logo on it.
[Image via AP]