Obama’s Criminal Justice Reforms Don’t Include Civil Asset Forfeiture

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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The police practice of seizing people’s private property after suspicion of wrongdoing — known as civil asset forfeiture — is so widespread it often occurs without charges or conviction of a crime.

Criminal justice advocates give President Barack Obama a great deal of credit for his initiatives, like commuting a presidential record of 562 federal inmates (as of early August). But he has not done much at the federal level about civil asset forfeiture; some states have already tackled the problem or are in the process of abolishing the practice.

U.S. attorneys expropriated an estimated total of $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture between 1989 and 2010. In the final year of that temporal margin, the total value of the taken assets grew by 52.8 percent from 2009 and it continued to grow, according to a corroborated blog post by Martin Armstrong of Armstrong Economics.

The value of seized property snowballed to $4.5 billion in 2014, more than a third of the total from 1989 to 2010.

The FBI reported that burglars across the country stole an estimated $3.9 billion in property losses.

In other words, whether legitimate or pursuant to a criminal case or not, the government and law enforcement authorities took more from people than burglars did.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in 2015 it would terminate the Equitable Sharing Program, an official system where the federal government grants state and local law enforcement agencies the seized assets.

“While we had hoped to minimize any adverse impact on state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners, the Department is deferring for the time being any equitable sharing payments from the Program,” M. Kendall Day, chief of the asset forfeiture and money laundering section of the DOJ, wrote in a letter to state and local law enforcement agencies, according to Business Insider.

Less than a year later, Lynch and the Obama administration reinstated the Equitable Sharing Program, which inherently increases law enforcement agencies’ incentive to seizing people’s private property.

John W. Thompson, former president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, argues that there is a compounded benefit from not only taking the resources from criminals, but then using those resources for further law enforcement initiatives.

“Drug crimes are often a focus, but other crimes are also addressed, removing a criminal’s financial incentives and making his activity a lose/lose. It turns assets into a weapon against crime, making it a win/win for crime prevention and taxpayers,” Thompson wrote for the USA Today.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California argued in May that this is not a formidable argument, since, “police forces are not underfunded.”

It is extremely difficult for people to retain their valuables. It can takes weeks, months or even years to reacquire the assets, while some are never able to.

A man named Eh Wah, who leads a Christian band in Oklahoma, had $53,000 he raised for an orphanage taken by law enforcement authorities after a K9 falsely alerted on his vehicle. No illicit objects, like narcotics, unregistered guns, or drug paraphernalia were found, but the police took the cash regardless.

The charges were eventually dropped and it was reported the cash would be returned.

“Stories like this happen all the time,” Issa wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Thompson, however, believes that the positives of the practice outweigh the negatives.

“Enforcing laws in a democratic society can create opportunities for misuse and abuse,” and any abuses should be promptly addressed, Thompson continued. He argued that just because a tactic is misused some of the time doesn’t mean it should be thrown out all together.

“While our civil forfeiture system can be an important tool in law enforcement’s efforts to keep our communities safe, there are unfortunately many instances of this process being abused,” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

“That is why the federal government should follow the lead of many states like New Mexico, Montana, and Florida, and look at ways to reform this system, especially the federal equitable sharing program, to increase accountability and end abusive practices that lead to the victimization of innocent Americans from all walks of life,” Harris continued.

New Mexico lawmakers passed legislation abolishing civil asset forfeiture, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed the bill into law in April of last year. (RELATED: Maryland Leads The Way On Criminal Justice Reform)

The state of Iowa seizes property from 1,000 people every year without proof of crime, according to a Newton Daily News analysis.

Under Iowa’s law, “the prosecutor must only show that the property is related to criminal activity and can be forfeited by a preponderance of the evidence,” according to the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report. “Once the prosecutor meets that burden, the burden is on the property owner to show his innocence, or in other words, that he did not know and could not have reasonably known of the conduct or that he acted reasonably to prevent the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture.”

The majority of criminal justice reform initiatives have been forced to transpire at the state level due to federal government inaction.

Harris believes the tides will change as grievances over civil asset forfeiture grow.

“The American people have champions on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress advocating for legislation to end these abusive practices,” Harris continued.

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