The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers urge end to program sharing forfeited assets with state and local police

Leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Friday called on the Justice Department to end the sharing of civil seizure proceeds with local and state police, a change that with few exceptions would cut the flow of hundreds of million of dollars annually to departments in every state.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the lawmakers said they think money from Justice's Equitable Sharing Program, the federal government's largest civil asset forfeiture initiative, may be encouraging heavy-handed tactics by local and state police agencies.

Equitable Sharing allows police who seize property under federal civil law to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds, while Justice and other participating federal agencies can keep 20 percent or more. In 2012, the most recent year of complete data available to The Washington Post, seizures worth more than $1.5 billion in cash, cars and other property were processed through the program.

“We are concerned that these seizures might circumvent state forfeiture law restrictions, create improper incentives on the part of state and local law enforcement, and unnecessarily burden our federal authorities,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Their call for change comes as Justice is conducting “an internal, top-to-bottom review of its entire asset forfeiture program,” the letter said. That review, which has been ongoing for months, is aimed at improving civil liberties protections of Americans, while also enabling the use of civil seizures to fight crime and terror.

“Over the past year, we have been engaged in a comprehensive review of the Asset Forfeiture Program, including consideration of changes to the adoption policy, as well as other aspects of the program,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. “The purpose of this ongoing review is to ensure that the department uses federal asset forfeiture authorities carefully and effectively.”

That effort follows a Washington Post investigation in September that found that nearly 62,000 cash seizures worth more than $2.5 billion have been made through Equitable Sharing since Sept. 11, 2001, without search warrants or indictments. The departments of Justice and Homeland Security received $800 million of that total, while thousands of local and state agencies kept the rest.

Sensenbrenner launched an investigation of federal civil asset forfeiture. Sensenbrenner, Grassley, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and others have begun crafting legislation that would overhaul civil asset forfeiture laws.

In the letter sent to Justice on Friday, the lawmakers said that civil seizures can be “a valuable tool in combatting serious wrongdoing. However, we have concerns that the government is not using the process fairly and instead is infringing on the rights of small business owners and motorists.”

They urged Holder to discontinue the “adoption” of local seizures, the process by which authorities at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies sanction seizures by local police under the federal law. After adoption, the seizures are then processed through the Equitable Sharing Program.

“We also recommend that you implement additional procedural safeguards to make sure the property of innocent Americans is not being swept up in overzealous asset forfeiture,” the letter said.

Grassley said that many federal programs and laws “are broad and often abstract to everyday life, but the Civil Asset Forfeiture Program can directly impact Americans in very serious ways.”

“The law is flawed and in dire need of reform,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “I’m committed to working in Congress to better protect Americans’ constitutional right to be secure in their property and possessions.”