Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced late last week that state and local police will no longer be able to seize property without warrants or criminal charges, ending a program that had in the past taken cash and other items from drug dealers, unsuspecting criminals, and sometimes poker players.
In 2008, the Justice Department started a civil asset forfeiture program called Equitable Sharing.
It allowed local police to make seizures of personal property even before charges were filed against a suspect, and was designed to be used as a part of the so-called “War on Drugs.”
In total, more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth over $3 billion had been collected under the program.
“Adoption” Program Ends With Few Exceptions
Specifically, Holder is ending the practice that allows the local and state police to make such seizures and then have them “adopted” by a federal agency, moving the cases to federal courts where rules against the seizure of personal property are usually less restrictive.
The local police departments then got to keep 80 percent of the proceeds from those seizures.
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” said Holder in a statement.
The move is not a blanket end to seizure programs.
There are still some exceptions to his new directive: police may still use the adoption programs to seize illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives, and property that is associated with child pornography.
This means it is unlikely that cash and vehicles, two of the most lucrative categories of seized property, could be taken as a part of the adoption program.
This could come as a comfort to some poker players who have lost cash in such cases in the past.
Last April, poker players John Newmerzhycky and William Davis were traveling through Iowa after a World Series of Poker circuit event at the Harrah’s casino in Joliet, Illinois.
A state trooper began to follow their vehicle after another officer relayed concerns over a red vehicle, even though it wasn’t clear why.
After a supposed traffic violation (which the players have challenged based on dash camera footage), the car was pulled over.
Newmerzhycky was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia for having a grinder that had been used with marijuana, but no other criminal charges were filed, and the two men were eventually allowed to leave Iowa.
However, the police seized over $100,000 in cash that was in the car at the time of the incident.
Many Equitable Sharing Agreements May Stay in Place
Some experts have pointed out that despite media reports, however, most equitable sharing agreements will still remain in place, as “adoptions” only account for a small percentage of equitable sharing cases.
“Using the six-year figures, the new policy at most will restrict about 3 percent of all federal forfeiture revenue,” wrote Radley Balko for The Washington Post.
Balko also points out that while some states have more restrictive seizure laws, other states actually make it even easier to seize property than the federal government, meaning that police activity won’t change in those jurisdictions.
Still, some police officials are upset that they’re losing any programs at all that help them derive revenue from assets seized from criminals.
“This benefits nobody but drug dealers,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning. “Federal law is a tremendously bigger hammer. I don’t see what hammer we are going to have over these people now.”