The Justice Department announced on Friday that most police departments could not use federal law to seize property from individuals when they have no reason to believe a crime has been committed.
Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderOvernight Tech: Senate moving to kill FCC's internet privacy rules | Bill Gates pushes for foreign aid | Verizon, AT&T pull Google ads | Q&A with IBM's VP for cyber threat intel Uber leadership sticking by CEO Top Dems prep for future while out of the spotlight MORE said in an order that the department would, in most cases, no longer run a controversial “asset forfeiture” program.
Under the program, police would seize property and then the federal government would “adopt.” The police department would keep a large percentage of the value of the property, and the Justice Department would keep the rest.
The order from Holder says that, in almost all cases, police agencies will no longer be able to seize property and forfeit it under the program. There will be exceptions for cases that involve public safety, including the seizure of firearms, ammunition, explosives and property involved in child pornography.
“Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately — providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations,” Holder said in a statement. “This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”
Law enforcement could seize the property, even when they did not charge the owner with a crime. Individuals would then have to legally fight the seizure, which many people could not afford to do.
Police departments would then frequently spend the proceeds from the seizures on weapons and vehicles, a Washington Post investigation found. The Post also found that they sometimes spent the proceeds on luxury cars and other purchases unrelated to law enforcement.
The announcement by the department will not end the use of similar laws that exist at the state and local level.
Asset forfeiture has existed since the 1980s, when it was created as a part of the war on drugs, but has recently been subject to aggressive criticism. In 2013, The New Yorker published an article on the topic, which was followed in 2014 by the Post investigation into the federal program.
An October segment of the HBO show “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” on the topic of civil forfeiture has been viewed more than 4 million times.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have united in their opposition to the policies. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that reining in asset forfeiture was one of his priorities going into the new Congress.
Last week, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Grassley sent a letter to Holder asking him to review the federal policy.
Holder said on Friday that his order was the first part of a broader review of the department’s asset forfeiture program. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said on Twitter that discussions about changing the policy began “late last year.”