Lawmakers press DOJ on alleged abuses with Equitable Sharing Program
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers is pressing the Department of Justice (DOJ) for information on efforts to combat alleged abuses connected to the Equitable Sharing Program, which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to work with federal agencies and receive proceeds from forfeited property.
In the letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland first reported by The Hill, Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said they are worried that some law enforcement may be seizing assets from people who are not convicted or who are not actually facing criminal charges.
“We are concerned that the Equitable Sharing Program creates a loophole allowing state and local law enforcement to seize assets from individuals without bringing criminal charges or a conviction, even in states that prohibit civil asset forfeiture,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
“In addition, we are concerned that DOJ does not conduct adequate oversight of law enforcement agencies participating in the Equitable Sharing Program,” the letter continued.
According to the DOJ, the Equitable Sharing Program allows agencies working on probes that lead to federal forfeiture to ask for a portion of the funds received “based on their contributions” to the effort that led to the forfeiture.
State, local and tribal government entities can qualify under the program.
In 2019, more than $333 million was paid from the federal government to state and local agencies in accordance with the Equitable Sharing Program, according to the Institute for Justice. Between 2000 and 2019, that number was more than $8.8 billion.
Raskin and Mace, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said they are “concerned that there is insufficient oversight” of how funds obtained by the program are used. They cited a report from Georgia that said money received through the program was used to purchase a $90,000 car for a police-led educational program and another from Texas that said a police department bought a $637 coffee maker.
Additionally, the lawmakers aired concerns about reports that said some state and local law enforcement agencies were receiving funds despite having “no discernable role in the underlying seizure.”
“According to DOJ’s Guide to Equitable Sharing, forfeiture proceeds are disbursed to agencies based on the number of hours spent participating in a forfeiture or on other factors that indicate an agency’s involvement in the seizure,” the lawmakers wrote. “In practice, however, agencies need not have any involvement in a forfeiture to profit from it.”
Raskin and Mace are now asking the DOJ to provide a staff briefing on steps the DOJ is taking to establish that law enforcement agencies are not utilizing the program to get around laws that restrict asset forfeiture in their states, in addition to details on how Asset Forfeiture Fund are asked for and delivered to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
A DOJ spokesperson told The Hill on Tuesday that the department “received the letter and will review it.”
The letter to Garland comes months after Raskin and Mace’s subcommittee held a hearing on the need for the country’s civil asset and forfeiture laws to be reformed.
At the hearing, expert witnesses said “state and local law enforcement agencies use DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program to circumvent state laws aimed at curtailing civil asset forfeiture abuse,” according to the letter from Raskin and Mace.
—Updated Tuesday at 3:13 p.m.