The controversial equitable sharing program, which allows local law enforcement to keep up to 80 percent of assets seized for suspected violations of federal law, is being suspended with the passing of the 2015 budget deal. The program — operated by the United States Department of Justice — allowed asset forfeiture cases to be prosecuted under federal, rather than state, law.
What is Asset Forfeiture?
Asset forfeiture is the practice of law enforcement confiscating the possessions of individuals who are thought to have committed certain offenses, such as theft and drug-related offenses, if the possessions seized are believed to have been either purchased with the proceeds of the individual’s alleged crime or used as an accessory to the crime. Assets seized could be vehicles, jewelry, weapons, and items used to manufacture drugs. At the federal level and in many states, law enforcement is permitted to seize these assets even if the assets’ owner has not yet been found guilty of, or even charged with, a crime.
This practice was initially developed as a way to make crime less attractive to potential criminals. By removing the gains that can come from illegal activities, law enforcement hoped to both reduce criminal acts in their communities and develop a way for crime victims to recover their losses. What it has become, though, is a way for police departments to supplement their revenue streams, especially in difficult financial times.
A large part of the controversy surrounding this practice is that with it, police departments are permitted to sell seized assets for their own profit. The amount of money earned by American law enforcement this way has exploded in recent years, prompting outrage from citizens and activist lawmakers alike.
What Can I Do if My Assets Are Seized?
As a citizen, it is important to know what to do if you find yourself in this situation. The first thing to understand is the difference between seizure and forfeiture. Seizure simply refers to the act of taking an individual’s property on the suspicion that the property is somehow connected to a criminal offense. This property is supposed to be held until the individual’s trial is over, then returned to him or her if he or she is found to be not guilty. However, this is not always the case, and many individuals find they must take legal action to get their property back. Forfeiture refers to the act of a police department keeping the property, which can happen if the individual is found guilty or if the property is contraband, such as an illegal weapon or drug paraphernalia.
If your property has been seized, work with an experienced asset forfeiture attorney to file a forfeiture claim. This is a type of civil claim that requires the claimant to prove that he or she is:
- Not guilty of the alleged crime or was unaware that his or her property was connected to a crime in any way; and
- The rightful owner of the property.
Sometimes, police departments are willing to work with innocent owners without having to involve the court. Other times, departments offer a deal to the owner, such as half of his or her property back in exchange for not taking legal action. These are sometimes a better alternative to filing a claim because it can be extremely difficult for this type of claim to be successful.
It sounds crazy, but it does happen. If your property is taken from you for this reason, it is critical that you are proactive and retain an experienced asset forfeiture attorney right away. The longer you wait, the lower your chance of recovering your assets.
Don’t get too excited about the suspension, though. The suspension of this program is just that – a suspension, not a permanent end. We could see it in action again. And we will continue to see asset forfeiture happen at the local level. For now, police will simply have to comply with state, rather than federal, seizure laws.