« Ind. Decisions - Seventh Circuit Review online | Main | Ind. Gov't. - "Jim Bopp Quits the Charlie White Case" »

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Law - Asset forfeitures where local and federal authorities cooperate in seizing assets

Note: Access to the WSJ is free, at least for today. I don't know whether that applies to earlier stories ...

In several earlier entries on asset forfeiture in Indiana, mention has been made that rather than sending a portion of money seized to the Indiana common school fund, locals might instead enter into a more advantageous relationship with federal authorities.

Two Wall Street Journal stories, from by John R. Emshwiller and Gary Fields, from August 22nd, explain what is known as "equitable sharing."

The first story is headed "County Sheriff Enjoys Fruits of Forfeitures." Some quotes:

The sheriff's office in Douglas County, Neb., just finished a new $4.2 million crime lab and police-dog center thanks to money seized from people driving by on Interstate 80.

That money is a small part of a large and controversial asset-forfeiture program known as "equitable sharing."

In this program, local authorities work with federal officials in seizing assets, such as cash or cars, they believe are tied to illegal activities. If the assets are deemed to be crime-related, the local and state agencies get up to 80% of the proceeds. Last year, equitable sharing paid out more than $500 million.

The second, and much longer story, is headed "Federal Asset Seizures Rise, Netting Innocent With Guilty ." Some quotes:
Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime.

Last year, forfeiture programs confiscated homes, cars, boats and cash in more than 15,000 cases. The total take topped $2.5 billion, more than doubling in five years, Justice Department statistics show.

The expansion of forfeiture powers is part of a broader growth in recent decades of the federal justice system that has seen hundreds of new criminal laws passed. Some critics have dubbed the pattern as the overcriminalization of American life. The forfeiture system has opponents across the political spectrum, including representatives of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Heritage Foundation on the right. They argue it represents a widening threat to innocent people.

"We are paying assistant U.S. attorneys to carry out the theft of property from often the most defenseless citizens," given that people sometimes have limited resources to fight a seizure after their assets are taken, says David Smith, a former Justice Department forfeiture official and now a forfeiture lawyer in Alexandria, Va.

Backers of the system say there are adequate protections for the innocent, and describe the laws as a powerful tool for returning money to crime victims. * * *

Part of the debate over seizures involves a potential conflict of interest: Under a 1984 federal law, state and local law-enforcement agencies that work with Uncle Sam on seizures get to keep up to 80% of the proceeds.

Last year, under this "equitable-sharing" program, the federal government paid out more than $500 million, up about 75% from a decade ago.

The payments give authorities an "improper profit incentive" to seize assets, says Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va. It's a particular concern amid current state and local government budget problems, he contends.

Justice Department officials say the 8,000 state and local agencies in the equitable-sharing program have greatly expanded the federal government's ability to go after criminal activities, particularly the movement of drugs and drug cash along the nation's highways. The program is monitored to ensure seizures are handled properly, they add.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 30, 2011 12:17 PM
Posted to General Law Related