ON-Lion Letter

Marking an important shift in federal law-enforcement policy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in January that a U.S. Department of Justice program permitting state law-enforcement agencies to turn seized properties over to the federal government for forfeiture will be suspended.  But the Institute for Justice (IJ) in Arlington, Va., points out that the new Justice Department policy does nothing to limit the widely used and sweeping power of the federal government, or joint federal and state task forces, to seize Americans' property based on nothing but suspicion.

"This important change in policy will strengthen protections for property owners who stand to lose their cash, cars, and other property without being convicted of or even charged with a crime," according to Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at IJ, the nation's leading legal advocate against civil forfeiture.  "But it is essential that greater protections for property owners must follow at the federal level and in the states to ensure that Americans are no longer victimized by civil forfeiture."

The announcement by Holder follows a growing wave of criticism and outrage about the government's forfeiture practices.  Federal legislation that would sharply curtail the federal government's civil-forfeiture program was introduced last session and is expected to be introduced again soon.
Under civil-forfeiture laws, law enforcement can take property suspected of involvement in criminal activity without convicting or charging the owner with a crime.  At the federal level and in most states, agencies involved in the forfeiture, including prosecutors and police departments, can keep some or all of the proceeds for their own use.
The announced policy would stop the process by which state and local officials use federal law to forfeit property without charging owners with a crime and then profit from those forfeitures, regardless of whether those forfeitures are permitted under state law.  But the new policy leaves open a significant loophole, as state and local law enforcement can still partner with federal agents through joint task forces for forfeitures not permitted under state law, and state and local law enforcement can use such task forces to claim forfeiture proceeds they would not be entitled to under state law.  

Moreover, the federal government can still pursue its own civil-forfeiture actions, where property owners face very significant burdens.  And the policy does not change state forfeiture laws, many of which burden property owners and permit policing for profit.
IJ launched its initiative against civil forfeiture in 2010 with the publication of its pathbreaking report Policing for Profit:  The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture.
"Civil forfeiture should not exist in a country that values the principles of private property rights and due process,” according to Bradley Prize recipient Chip Mellor, president and general counsel at IJ, which is substantially supported by Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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