NPR’s Marketplace aired a segment on Wednesday about the return of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) “equitable sharing” asset forfeiture program. Equitable sharing allows property seized by local and state law enforcement to be forfeited federally, allowing law enforcement to bypass state forfeiture laws. The program was revived last week after being suspended in December 2015 due to a $1.2 billion federal budget shortfall. Wesley Hottot, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, explained the risks involved with reviving the program to Marketplace:
“Now, everyone agrees that law enforcement should be fully funded…The question is whether or not law enforcement should have a financial incentive in taking people’s property.”
While some states restrict the amount of proceeds law enforcement can retain from civil forfeiture, equitable sharing allows law enforcement to keep up to 80 percent of those proceeds. That creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement to use the program to profit from seizures. According to the Institute for Justice report on civil forfeiture, Policing for Profit, in 2014 about $4.5 billion of assets were deposited into the DOJ’s forfeiture fund.
Victims of civil forfeiture also face issues with legal representation when trying to reclaim their property. Marketplace explained:
Hottot claimed it can be hard for people to get their money back in civil forfeiture cases because it can cost too much to hire a lawyer.
“They don’t have the money to fight. They don’t have the will to fight,” he said. “Many people simply give-up.”
Marketplace profiled Alda Gentile, a grandmother who had $11,500 seized when driving from Florida to New York. Police claimed the money was related to drugs even though they found no drugs in the vehicle. Gentile was able to get her money back a week later, according to Marketplace, but an investigation by the Washington Post found that in only about seven percent of cases did property owners recover at least part of their property.