A little less legal stealing

When is it perfectly legal to steal somebody’s cash and property?  When you are a police office accusing somebody of a crime (only the barest pretext of probable cause necessary) and using civil forfeiture laws (I’ve written plenty on the matter).  We see a heck of a lot more attention to things like Edward Snowden, metadata, etc., but this is an every day occurrence that strikes me as far more of a threat to democratic citizenship.   Any, big appreciation to Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for ending the federal government’s participation in this grossly immoral and scandalous practice.  It will persist at the state level until more states decide to clean up their act, but this should make a meaningful dent.  Jameele Bouie’s has a nice summary of the key issues:

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the United States struggled with a terrible wave of violent crime, an aggressive Democratic Party helped escalate the war on drugs and expand the punitive policies of state and federal governments. Whether these policies actually reduced crime is an open question, but it’s incontestable that they opened the door to mass incarceration, police militarization, and a wide range of easily abused programs.

A 1984 law allows state and local police forces to share the proceeds with their federal counterparts, and a Justice Department program called “equitable sharing” helped facilitate these transfers. “Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion,” reports the Washington Post. These funds are split between federal agencies and police forces, with the latter keeping up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

This sounds like a good idea—using criminal property to fund crime-fighting. In practice, however, it’s been a disaster. While citizens are allowed to challenge forfeitures—and while some departments have been sued—the vast majority of asset forfeiture happens with little oversight or accountability. The result is a parade of abuse and corruption, to say nothing of the problems inherent in a program that lets police confiscate property without due process afforded to criminal suspects.

Absolute best part about this?  Republicans are actually on board!  Obviously, if we want meaningful and lasting change (which is desperately needed) it has to be a truly bipartisan issue:

Republicans, who have also begun to shift on these issues, are supportive. “We’re going to have a fairer justice system because of it,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people.” In the House, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, was also positive. “I commend the department for this step and look forward to working with them on comprehensive forfeiture reform that protects Americans’ property rights,” he said. “Equitable sharing has become a tool too often used to bypass state law. Forfeitures should be targeted and must have appropriate procedural protections.”

Like I said, this does nothing for the state level, but if politicians in both parties are seeing the harm in the present system, there’s definitely cause for optimism.  And we cannot know what difference it has actually made, but kudos to the New Yorker and the Washington Post for both chanelling major investigative resources and news pages into this pretty much ignored, but very important issue.

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