THE JUSTICE Department calls it a tool to crack down on terrorists, kleptocrats and fugitives. So why did it result in the seizure of money and other assets from law-abiding people? Welcome to the weird world of civil asset forfeiture, in which the government can take property without charging its owner with a crime. There are some legitimate reasons for the practice, such as cracking down on sophisticated organized-crime rings, that manage to separate criminals from tainted assets. But even after years of criticism and reports of abuse, the federal government still has not reformed its piece of the system enough to keep its application narrow and fair.
The use of civil forfeiture has boomed over the past decade, in part because of the Justice Department’s “equitable sharing” policy, which gives local law enforcement a cut of the proceeds from seizures they turn over to the federal government. Federal seizure rules are sometimes looser than state rules. If local police can put seized assets into the federal system and still get a slice of the pot, the federal government is giving local police departments a financial interest in using the federal system to maximize seizures.
The result has been stories such as that of Mandrel Stuart, a barbecue restaurant owner from whom Fairfax County police took $17,550 in 2012. Police pulled Mr. Stuart over for having tinted windows and a video playing in his line of sight — and ultimately released him without charge. But they kept the money, which Mr. Stuart said was for buying restaurant supplies, and had a Drug Enforcement Administration officer process it. Mr. Stuart got his money back — but it took a year, and he lost his business in the meantime.
Responding to reports such as these, the Justice Department has over the past two years placed stronger limits on equitable sharing, requiring that seizures be processed under the program only if the feds were involved before police took the assets and requiring that federal prosecutors quickly vet them. These new rules are helpful but not enough.
The point of equitable sharing should be to fight major crimes, not pad police budgets. Any link between the volume of seizures and the windfall to police departments must be broken. Otherwise police departments will be tempted to push the rules as far as they can. For a time, the Justice Department seemed poised to end equitable sharing, suspending the scheme. But the department recently announced that it is restarting the program. It should reconsider, cordoning off seized assets for other purposes and finding other ways to encourage local police to assist in federal investigations.
Even if the feds reform fully, they cannot touch state civil seizure rules, which in many locales continue to encourage abuse. These, too, should be reformed so that innocent people cannot be deprived unfairly of their hard-earned cash.