Department of Justice announces limit in seized-asset sharing

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | Monday, January 19, 2015

The Obama Administration is changing the process by which some assets seized during alleged criminal activity can be shared between local and federal law enforcement agencies.

On Friday, Jan. 16, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order to prohibit adoption of federal agency forfeiture of assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies. The adoption process, also called equitable sharing, allowed local law enforcement to turn seized assets over to federal authorities when state law didn’t allow the property to be forfeited to local police.

Property forfeiture has grown increasingly controversial as both the scope and value of assets seized have increased. Professional truck drivers are particularly vulnerable in certain jurisdictions where cash and trucks can be seized without formal criminal charges filed.

The order has a limited public safety exception to allow continue allowing federal seizure of firearms, ammunition, explosives and assets related to child pornography.

“This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program,” Holder said in a statement. “Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately – providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations. This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”

The Justice Department’s asset seizure program dates to the 1980s. Since 2008, local and state police seized more than 55,000 cash and property amounts totaling $3 billion under the equitable sharing program. The program allowed local police to keep 80 percent of the proceeds, while the rest was distributed to federal agencies.

“At the time these policies were implemented, few states had forfeiture statues analogous to the federal asset forfeiture laws,” a Justice Department news release said. “Consequently, when state and local law enforcement agencies seized criminal proceeds and property used to commit crimes, they often lacked the legal authority to forfeit the seized items. Turning seized assets over to federal law enforcement agencies for adoption was a way to keep those assets form being returned to criminals.”

Because every state has criminal or civil forfeiture laws, the federal asset adoption process is less necessary, the release said.  Since 2000, the Justice Department says it has returned about $4 billion in forfeited funds to victims of federal crime.

Local asset forfeiture laws continue to allow law enforcement to seize assets legally allowed in those states.

The Justice and Treasury departments will be part of the Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group charged with providing recommendations to the President for actions that can be taken to improve asset forfeiture.

Examinations of the asset forfeiture process could affect the trucking industry because drivers regularly interact with law enforcement. Trucking also faces a multibillion dollar underworld of illegal cargo theft.

Thaddeus Mathews, OOIDA senior member from Burleson, Texas, had his truck seized in September 2009 after the driver of a passenger car accused him of ramming into her car. Thaddeus was held in jail for seven days while police in Hillsboro, Texas, filed a civil claim in court to take ownership of his truck.

Hill County prosecutors declined to pursue Mathews in court and dismissed the case. That didn’t stop Hill County law enforcement from keeping Mathews’ chrome truck bumper for 20 months. Mathews lost his job during the ordeal and spent $8,000 in legal fees to clear his name.

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