Skip Navigation

Defund Asset Forfeiture Program, Senators Say

December 3, 2017

A group of U.S. Senators is calling on Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) to deny funding for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ expansion of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program.

A group of U.S. Senators is calling on Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) to deny funding for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ expansion of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program.

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Angus King (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Tom Udall (D-NM) sent a letter to Shelby on November 8, 2017 requesting the committee exclude funding for the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Equitable Sharing program from any appropriations bills.

In 2015, DOJ prohibited federal agencies from “adopting” forfeited assets from local and state law enforcement agencies. The reform required a direct federal involvement in seizure actions before depositing assets in the federal redistribution fund.

The Equitable Sharing program allows local law enforcement agencies to bypass state laws restricting civil asset forfeiture, by laundering forfeited assets and money through the federal fund.

In July 2017, Sessions removed the 2015 restrictions on the Equitable Sharing program, allowing local law enforcement agencies to resume cycling funds.

Government Money Laundering?

The program allows police departments to circumvent state laws protecting rights to due process and property, Lee says.

“Equitable sharing allows state law enforcement officers to go around state limitations on civil asset forfeiture by turning seized property over to federal officials, in exchange for what can be up to 80 percent of the proceeds,” Lee told Budget & Tax News. “Some states have put heavy restrictions on the use of civil asset forfeiture, and that’s one of the reasons why equitable sharing developed: a desire, on the part of some, to circumvent state law restrictions.

“It starts to take on the feel of money laundering,” Lee said.

‘Few Things More Fundamental’

Due process is a sacred constitutional right, Lee says.

“There are few things more fundamental than due process,” Lee said. “There are few rights that are more basic to our Constitutional system, to our culture, to what we believe about the dignity of the individual soul, than that government ought not come in and arbitrarily take the belongings of individual citizens.”

The federal government has exceeded its constitutional limits and must be restrained, Lee says.

“Our federal government was never intended to be the Swiss Army knife, the one-size-fits-all tool that it has become,” Lee said. “Most criminal law enforcement has been, and to a significant degree still is, authority that exists at the state and local level. The federal government has intruded into this area far more than it should. That’s one of the reasons why you see things like equitable sharing, where the federal government has stepped in and effectively nullified state law.”

Civil asset forfeiture violates people’s God-given rights, Lee says.

“This is a natural-law sort of issue,” Lee said. “They’re flipping the presumption of innocence on its head, basically saying, ‘We’re taking your property. Now, if you want it back, sue us and prove that our theory is wrong.’”

‘A Complete Violation of Rights’

Steve Miller, a retired Canton Township, Michigan Police Department sergeant and a spokesman for Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an international nonprofit organization promoting criminal justice reform, says civil asset forfeiture disproportionately harms low-income households.

“We’re taking poor, working-class people’s cars that are needed to get to and from work every day,” Miller said. “It hits struggling people, and it’s a complete violation of rights to take people’s property before the criminal case has even commenced.”

Taxes and Takings

The government should not use civil asset forfeiture to take ownership of individuals’ property, Miller says.

“It’s absurd,” Miller said. “We’re already taking people’s money, in the form of their taxes. To prey on other people and steal their stuff, on the suspicion that they committed a crime, is wrong.”

Author
Joshua Paladino writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.
jpaladino@hillsdale.edu