January 16, 2015

AG narrows forfeiture program that landed LC city attorney in hot water

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Police officer on radioA program that allowed local police departments to seize assets from those accused of crimes will now only apply to those who are convicted except for specific crimes, according to United States Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Washington Post described the move as, “the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.”

The practice received national attention following a Washington Post investigation and a piece in the New York Times among other outlets.

The Washington Post investigation found that nearly $2.5 billion in assets had been seized without search warrants or indictments since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

The money would largely go to local law enforcement.

The New York Times story was of particular note to those in New Mexico after the paper reported on a video of Las Cruces city attorney Harry S. Connelly Jr. speaking about using the program.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

Following the article, and video, Connelly was placed on leave.

The New York Times article also mentions that the Albuquerque Police Department “which has long seized the cars of suspected drunken drivers, began taking them from men suspected of trying to pick up prostitutes, landing seven cars during a one-night sting.”

Albuquerque’s vehicle seizures for DWI have continued despite a court ruling on a class-action lawsuit over the practice that said the seizure of one car was unconstitutional. The DWI seizures are through a city ordinance, which would not be impacted by the DOJ move.

So what exactly does the new move by Holder do?

From the DOJ press release:

The Attorney General ordered that federal agency adoption of property seized by state or local law enforcement under state law be prohibited, except for property that directly relates to public safety concerns, including firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography. The prohibition on federal agency adoption includes, but is not limited to, seizures by state or local law enforcement of vehicles, valuables, cash and other monetary instruments. This order is effective immediately and applies to all Justice Department attorneys and components, and all participants in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program. The new policy will ensure that adoption is employed only to protect public safety, and does not extend to seizures where state and local jurisdictions can more appropriately act under their own laws.

So there will still be some seizures allowed — but not through the Equitable Sharing program at the Department of Justice except for the specific cases outlined above — those “including firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography.”

The move by Holder further polished his reputation among those who want change in the way the country deals with drugs.

“First, sentencing reform, then marijuana reform, and now asset forfeiture reform,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Eric Holder will go down in history for his pivotal role in addressing the excesses and abuses of law enforcement in America.”