DOJ Helping Law Enforcement Agencies Fight Back Against Asset Forfeiture Reform

by Tim Cushing
Sep. 15, 2015

At the beginning of this year, Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to close an exploitable loophole in asset forfeiture laws. State and local law enforcement agencies often sought federal "adoption" of seizures in order to route around statutes that dumped assets into general funds or otherwise limited them from directly profiting from these seizures. By partnering with federal agencies, local law enforcement often saw bigger payouts than with strictly local forfeitures.

The loophole closure still had its own loopholes (seizures for "public safety," various criminal acts), but it did make a small attempt to straighten out some really perverted incentives. But deep down inside, it appears the DOJ isn't really behind true forfeiture reform. In fact, it seems to be urging local law enforcement to fight these efforts by pointing out just how much money these agencies will "lose" if they can't buddy up with Uncle Sam.
A cache of documents uncovered by the Institute for Justice today demonstrate that federal law enforcement officials in the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Treasury are collaborating with local law enforcement organizations in California to undermine efforts to reform the state’s civil forfeiture laws. The California District Attorneys Association is circulating a set of emails from officials with the DOJ and Treasury indicating that the federal government would disqualify the state from receiving funds from the federal Equitable Sharing Program if it passes the pending reforms. The documents also reveal that the DOJ has already disqualified New Mexico from participating in the program, following passage of a sweeping civil forfeiture reform bill this spring.
The DOJ's insertion into the legislative process begins with talking points delivered in emails that stress the amount of money agencies will be "losing" if they're no longer allowed to federalize seizures. The documents show members of the Treasury Department affirming that California's reform will "force" the DOJ to cut state law enforcement agencies out of the loop -- supposedly because the Mother Ship can't secure convictions fast enough.
Citing “resources, desire, or technical capability,” Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture Legal Counsel Melissa Nasrah wrote in an email to Santa Barbara Senior Deputy District Attorney Lee Carter, “I highly doubt our federal agencies can figure out whether a conviction occurred in any timely manner,” and “it seems the legislation, in effect, takes decision-making authority away from Treasury. Accordingly, I think I would still advise our policy officials here that it would be prudent to not share with CA agencies should this law be passed.”
Sure enough, the "warnings" from the feds are echoed in a letter from the California District Attorneys' Association in opposition of the bill. The association expresses its abject dismay at the fact that law enforcement agencies might actually have to secure convictions to hold onto seized assets. According to the CDAA, asset forfeiture without accompanying convictions is a must because indictments and jail time alone aren't punitive enough.
The current version of the bill would essentially deny every law enforcement agency in California direct receipt of any forfeited assets. California's asset forfeiture law will be changed for the worse, and it will cripple the ability of law enforcement to forfeit assets from drug dealers when arrest and incarceration is an incomplete strategy for combatting drug trafficking.
The Treasury Department, for its part, argues that a conviction requirement would prevent the DOJ from a) being fair and b) performing the studious oversight that has prevented asset forfeiture from devolving into cops going shopping for stuff they want.
A transfer to a state-controlled fund would not be a permissible use of funds, especially when that central fund would redistribute money to all law enforcement agencies in the state, regardless of their eligibility or participation in our program.

All participating agencies must report their expenditures to DOJ at the end of their fiscal year. As you are aware, there are many law enforcement items that cannot be purchased with equitably shared funds, and some are fully prohibited both by policy and executive order. lf a participating agency turns its federally shared funds over to the State of California under those proposed amendments, DOJ can no longer provide appropriate oversight over final expenditures.
The CDAA goes on to complain that the proposed reforms would reverse the one-way screwing it has become accustomed to.
The vast majority of civil narcotic asset forfeiture cases in California resolve by default or settlement. Providing attorney fees to the party that "substantially prevails" could result in attorney fees being available when the People return 50 percent or more of the seizure in a settlement. This would be an unprecedented one-way benefit for a civil litigant, and a huge additional cost to prosecuting forfeitures. Further, in appropriate cases and under existing civil law, attorney fees are already available to claimants in a forfeiture action.
Note the use of "the People" to portray this as robbing the public of the benefits of seized funds when, in actuality, it's usually just the theft of funds from (lowercase) people.

It's easy to see why California law enforcement is panicking. There's almost $84 million at stake, if the CDAA's stats are accurate. These agencies want to control how they get these funds, what they have to do to hold onto them and how they're disbursed. Anything short of the status quo is just a win for drug dealers. This is hardly unexpected behavior. Nothing makes government agencies more defensive than furtive movements in the direction of their wallets.

That the DOJ has decided to pile on -- despite its nominal reform efforts -- is also less than shocking. After all, it takes a cut from every "adopted" investigation -- all the while enabling local entities to bypass statutory safeguards meant to keep the abuse of civil forfeiture to a minimum.

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