The Justice Department Monday announced that it is resuming a controversial practice that allows local police departments to funnel a large portion of assets seized from citizens into their own coffers under federal law.
The "equitable-sharing" program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. The Justice Department had suspended payments under this program back in December, due to budget cuts included in last year's spending bill.
"In the months since we made the difficult decision to defer equitable sharing payments because of the $1.2 billion rescinded from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring Equitable Sharing payments," spokesman Peter J. Carr said.
Asset forfeiture is a contentious practice that lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted - and in many cases, never charged - with wrongdoing. Recent reports have found that the use of the practice has exploded in recent years, prompting concern that, in some cases, police are motivated more by profit and less by justice.
The Justice Department's equitable sharing program allowed state and local authorities to pursue asset forfeiture under federal, rather than state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize.
Asset forfeiture is fast growing -- in 2014, for instance, federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets. That's more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year.
Reformers had hoped that the suspension of the program back in December was a signal that the Justice Department was looking for ways to rein in the practice. But that no longer appears to be the case.
"This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system," said Scott Bullock, president of the Institute for Justice, in an interview. The institute is a civil liberties law firm that researches asset forfeiture and advocates on behalf of forfeiture defendants. It has reported extensively on what it calls the "profit motive" created by the equitable sharing program -- because police get to keep a share of the items they seize, they have an incentive to take more stuff.
Bullock says the suspension and return of equitable sharing demonstrate the need for Congress to act on the issue. "Changes to forfeiture policy can be swept away by the stroke of a pen," he said.
But the suspension of the program had outraged law enforcement groups. In a statement last December, the heads of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorney's Association and other groups said in a joint statement that the changes would have "a significant and immediate impact on the ability of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to protect their communities."
"We are seeing a lot more pushback from law enforcement," Bullock said. "Even to the point where they are ... making budgetary appeals saying, 'we need this for our bottom line.' And that's something that's been unusual to see and it goes to our point about what this is really about -- raising the revenue. " he added.
Law enforcement groups appear to have had some successes at rallying members of Congress to their side. In January, New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen called on the Justice Department to restore the payments.