U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently put a stop to a controversial practice that allowed law enforcement to seize cash or property from people without any evidence that the person had committed a crime, according to this article.
The practice known as civil asset forfeiture has been around for a while, and started becoming more common during the Reagan era-war on drugs. However, in recent years the practice has come under fire as police agencies have raked in billions from people who were never even arrested. In one example made famous in the news media, a couple in Philadelphia nearly lost their home because their son was alleged to have sold a small number of drugs. The parents weren’t accused of any crime, but the house they owned was alleged to have been connected to minor drug activity.
A common practice has been for law enforcement officers to seize cash in highway stops without warrants and without charging the drivers. Police agencies mostly were able to keep the cash simply because the drivers didn’t have the time or resources to fight the seizures, or if they did fight would sign a settlement agreeing to accept less than had been taken from them. A Washington Post article reported that police agencies raked in more than $2.5 billion from highway stops from 2001 to 2014 in this manner.
One way they were able to do that was by handing the money over to federal agencies to take advantage of a federal program called the Equitable Sharing program, and then the federal agency would give as much as 80 percent of the proceeds back to the local police agency. The Equitable Sharing program doesn’t require any evidence that a crime occurred in order for the property to be seized.
However, Holder on Jan. 16 ordered federal agencies to stop participating in the program, which effectively means local law enforcement can no longer use Equitable Sharing as a means of keeping seized cash or property. Some states have their own laws allowing civil asset forfeiture, but in Ohio cash or property seized has to be linked to evidence of an actual crime in order for police to keep it.
So it will no longer be enough in Columbus or elsewhere in Ohio for an officer to pull someone over who is carrying a large amount of cash and take the cash just because the person has a prior drug offense, which Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott told the Columbus Dispatch has been the practice locally. Now the deputy, trooper, or officer who pulls someone over has to be able to connect the money or the car seized to criminal activity — not just to someone who once committed a crime.
Holder’s order doesn’t close the books on civil asset forfeiture. It remains an option for federal investigators, or for local officers participating in a joint task force with federal agents, such as a multi-jurisdictional drug task force. But it’s a step back in the direction of protecting the average person’s constitutional rights.