The Daily Signal, written by Melissa Quinn
The Justice Department is halting a controversial program that allows law enforcement to keep most of the proceeds of cash and property they seize from Americans under federal law, sometimes without charging anyone with a crime.
Now the law enforcement community, which benefits from the program, is pushing back against the Justice Department, saying its decision could have negative consequences on public safety.
Just days before Christmas, the Justice Department announced suspension of its “equitable sharing” program. In a letter to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, the department said it is deferring payments to the agencies because of cuts to its budget, deepened in the spending package passed by Congress earlier this month.
“The department does not take this step lightly,” M. Kendall Day, head of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture and money laundering division, wrote in the letter, adding:
We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing while continuing to operate the program and meet our other fiscal obligations. Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two reductions totaling $1.2 billion made that impossible.
Day said he remained confident that temporarily suspending the program will allow the Justice Department to reinstate payments to law enforcement, writing that by “deferring equitable sharing payments now, we preserve our ability to resume equitable sharing payments at a later date should the budget picture improve.”
Under equitable sharing, local and state law enforcement agencies seize property and cash under federal forfeiture laws and receive a sizeable portion—up to 80 percent—of the proceeds from what they say are assets tied to crimes.
Opponents of civil forfeiture view law enforcement’s use of equitable sharing as a way to circumvent stricter state forfeiture laws.
Civil forfeiture is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to seize property and cash if they suspect it is connected to a crime.
According to a November report from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm opposing civil forfeiture, state and local law enforcement agencies received $4.7 billion in forfeiture proceeds from 2000 to 2013 through the Justice Department’s program.
Law enforcement agencies contend that civil forfeiture is a vital tool needed to combat drug trafficking and money laundering.
In letters to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and congressional leadership, the leaders of six law enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations, warned of the consequences that ending such efforts would have on the communities they serve.
“Given the remarkable success of this program, the provisions approved by Congress and the [Obama] administration are both baffling and disappointing. The suspension of equitable sharing payments may cause some agencies across the country to reconsider their ability to participate in joint task forces with the federal government,” the law enforcement officials wrote, adding:
The effects of this decision are far reaching and not only a disservice to law enforcement, but also to the public they are sworn to protect.
In a separate statement, the National Sheriff’s Association said the Justice Department’s decision will hinder law enforcement agencies’ ability to do their jobs[…]
In other words, the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program has morphed into share no more.
Permission to republish granted from The Heritage Foundation.