The Feds Are Making It Harder for Local Cops to Seize Private Property

Attorney General Eric Holder is axing a program called Equitable Sharing, dealing a brutal—if not fatal—blow to the system of formalized American police corruption that is civil asset forfeiture.

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Jan 19 2015, 9:40pm

Photo via Flickr user Rennett Stowe

For a man who believes the government has the right to kill American citizens, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has been on something of a libertarian streak. First came the directive to refrain from certain federal mandatory minimum sentences in the war on drugs. Then President Obama and Holder hammered out the beginnings of a system of appeals for drug crimes in April.

On Friday, Holder's office made another splash, announcing that he was ending the Department of Justice's plush Equitable Sharing program, dealing a brutal—if not fatal—blow to the system of formalized police corruption that is civil asset forfeiture.

For a refresher course, asset forfeiture basically comes down to taking money and property from (mostly) drug suspects, or anyone found to be carrying a large amount of cash. Sometimes this results in possessions being seized from the family of someone who sold drugs, or just someone who is allegedly suspicious enough to warrant snagging their money. The cops don't need a conviction, or even a charge, to do so.

The amount of money or assets that law enforcement can keep from a seizure varies from state to state, but as these are civil and not criminal proceedings, the standard of proof is always shockingly low. This can lead to people having to pay money in order to fight a seizure, and desperately trying to prove that property or cash is not guilty of any crime.

Since 2008, the DOJ has funneled $3 billion through Equitable Sharing—a neat way of getting around state forfeiture law. If you're a police officer in a state that happens to be one of the stricter ones, just involve a token fed in your drug investigation, thereby making it federal, and your department will get to keep up to 80 percent of the profits. This has been a major source of law enforcement funding for years, and it incentivizes prioritizing drugs to an alarming degree. Why focus on violent crime when low-level drug offenses puts money in your pocket?

Holder's plan sounds good, and it is, even if there are some exceptions for property related to explosives, ammunition, and child porn. As Holder put it, "The Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons."

Of course, like most many grand government plans, this reform could potentially fall victim to a loophole. Perhaps most concerning is the apparent allowance of continued seizures and funding by multijurisdictional drug task forces, which often engage in some of the nastiest drug war business, such as residential raids. The Washington Post's Radley Balko asked forfeiture expert attorneys to interpret Holder's language, and they had no idea about the precise meaning of the exemptions, suggesting we shouldn't get too pumped just yet.

Still, Holder's announcement is a real sign of progress after decades where authorities seemed to calculate that the profits from the war on drugs far outweighed the costs.

Now onto this week's bad cops:

-On Thursday, we learned more about federal spying thanks to a court order. The DEA has apparently been issuing administrative subpoenas to phone companies, collecting records of calls between the US and abroad for a while now. The judge demanded the program be disclosed as part of an investigation into an Iranian-American man accused of violating export sanctions. Somehow, this surveillance is being done under the banner of the 1988 Controlled Substances Act, but that shouldn't be terribly surprising. Powers granted to the government over terrorism are frequently used for drug investigations (see the PATRIOT Act legacy of so-called sneak and peek warrants), but many privacy violations people associate with the war on terror actually began decades before 9/11 thanks to the existential threat that was narcotics.

-Cheers for bulletproof vests: On Thursday, a man identified as Dallas Horton, 29, shot the police chief of Sentinel, Oklahoma, during a 4 AM police raid conducted over a bomb threat. After entering Horton's home, Chief Louis Ross was shot, saved by the vest, and was treated and then released for arm injuries. No explosives were found. Shockingly, Horton was released after several hours of questioning—police agree he probably didn't know who he was shooting at. Information is still a bit sketchy, but the media are definitely trying to smear Horton as a guy who "wears black," posted something about the Islamic State, and might be a big survivalist. Horton could be an asshole—he might even be an attempted murderer—but considering the history of 4 AM police raids, there's a damn good chance he was a just a dude with a gun who was surprised by police.

-On Thursday, police in St. Ann, Missouri, handcuffed and beat the wrong man, a guy whose car was in fact smashed by the actual suspect. Joseph Swink, 22, suffered bruising and cuts on his face after police confused his car with that of Anton Simmons, and beat him accordingly. Simmons's record includes charges of assaulting a police officer, among among outstanding warrants. Rather pathetically, chief Aaron Jimenez will not reprimand the officers who did the deed because "it was an honest mistake," because Swink may have been injured on his airbag instead, and because Swink was resisting arrest. Well, yeah he was resisting—he didn't do anything.

-According to a new Reuters poll, almost a third of Americans—and 45 percent of black people—think cops "routinely lie." That doesn't bode well for trust in law enforcement. Then again, two-thirds of respondents—and even 56 percent of black folks—approve of their local police. That suggests fear of disorder is still strong enough to drown out some peoples' concerns about police misconduct.

-After a major public outcry, the North Miami Beach Police Department has announced that they will stop using real photographs for sniper-training target practice. The photos were discovered after a solder saw a photo of her brother being used. She said that all the photos appeared to be of black males, making the practice even more unnerving.

-Our good cop of the week is a Chicago officer who rescued what seems to be a Polar Bear Club–type who underestimated the frozen waters of Lake Michigan on Sunday. The 58-year-old man took off his clothes, was dressed in swimsuit, and seemed quite prepared for his effort, but a bystander called 9-1-1. It's a good thing they did, since after crossing onto the ice, Officer Wadell Hardy found the guy in serious trouble. Hardy reached out and held the man's head above water until divers and the fire department arrived. The would-be swimmer is in critical condition, but hopefully he'll recover. For saving some reckless guy's life on a weekend, Officer Hardy is a fine cop indeed.

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