Cops Can No Longer Just Seize Your Money

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Souther District of New York on April 1, 2014 in New York City. Holder spoke alongside U.S. Attorney for the South District of New York, Preet Bharara, about the prosecution of Osama Bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghayth.
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Sorry, local law enforcement: Eric Holder just reined you in big time. The outgoing attorney general (he will step down whenever his successor is confirmed) prohibited Equitable Sharing, a program that allowed local police departments to use federal law to seize cash and other assets in the name of justice. Now they will be forced to produce actual evidence that a crime has occurred before taking your stuff, further highlighting just how absurd it is that they were able to take it willy-nilly just yesterday.

This practice of seizing items they think could be used in law-breaking activity, called civil forfeiture, has really resulted in wide-ranging seizure of questionable morality. For starters, the practice raises alarms not only because you don’t actually get due process (oh hey, 5th and 14th amendments, thanks for stopping by), but because police departments often then get to keep whatever they confiscated. Yes, including money, which they sometimes ask about while pulling someone over. John Oliver explained it best:

An earlier Washington Post investigation found that police had gotten billions in cash from routine traffic stops since the 9/11 attacks, just by stopping drivers, performing warrant-less searches, and seizing the money. For many departments around the country, money seized through civil forfeiture padded department budgets by significant percentages.

It’s not surprising, then, that since 2008 state and municipal law enforcement agencies have netted over $3 billion through asset-sharing programs with federal agencies. (The feds also profited from this, by getting a cut of whatever was taken.) Under Holder’s new ruling, state and local cops can no longer hide behind federal law, except in some limited circumstances: stuff like firearms, ammunition, explosives, and child pornography.

Of course, local police can still seize property without a trial through state-based civil forfeiture laws, but those tend to be more restrictive about both the standard of proof necessary, and where the seized funds go. Unsurprisingly, states that don’t funnel seized cash back into law enforcement tend to have fewer forfeiture-related scandals.