Monday, February 02, 2015

Something else that would have been on

Something else that would have been on

This would have come in the form of an Update on my report on what I called the Good News of Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to end federal participation in the grossly misnamed "Equitable Sharing" program, where the feds would "adopt" civil asset seizures by state and local police and split the goodies 80-20, with the greater part going to the locals.

A brief reminder: Civil asset seizure (or "forfeiture," which sounds nicer because it kind of sounds like the victims are giving their stuff up willingly, like some sort of donation) is a practice under which police steal - excuse me, "seize" - assets, whether goods or money, from people based on the cops' "belief" that the assets are somehow connected to the illegal drug trade, at which point the burden of proof is on the person whose stuff was stolen - er, "seized" - to somehow prove the negative that it was not in any way connected to anything illegal. Few are able to bear the legal costs involved, fewer succeed in recovering their goods or money.

The reason local cops loved Equitable Sharing is that several states have requirements for justifying seizures that are stricter than the federal rules; for example, some say cops must be able to show a "substantial connection" between the asset and illegality. Ending the program will put a real crimp in those activities that relied on it to justify seizures.

However, Leon Neyfakh, a staff writer at Slate, has asked how much difference it will make because of the number of states that have not reformed their state laws about asset seizure either by tightening the requirements to justify a seizure or by stating that the value of such seizures go into the general treasury rather than, as is too often the case, straight into the budget of whatever law enforcement agency took the stuff. (That latter change removes the perverse incentive for cops to seize whatever they figure they can justify.)

In those unreformed states, Neyfakh says, "the gravy train will roll on." It's a strong reminder of why I called Holder's decision "mostly" good news and "tempered" good news. But I think it's at least a bit overstated for a few reasons:

One, the decision will, again, put a real damper on those police forces that relied on Equitable Sharing to evade having to use their state laws, which Neyfakh acknowledges.

Two, most of those tighter state-level restrictions have come into place since Equitable Sharing began, which means states are moving, if slowly but still moving, in the direction of limiting or controlling asset seizure.

Three, Holder's action did not come in a vacuum, it came as a reflection of the fact that more questions are being asked about the whole program of asset seizure.

And four, Holder's decision has brought more attention to the whole corrupt business. And that is likely to spur more outrage and more action in more states.

It likely won't happen overnight or even any reasonable definition of quickly, but it is not unreasonable to look to a time when the whole foul business of civil asset seizure will be seen for the blatantly unconstitutional perversion of power which it is.

And wouldn't that be Good News.

Sources cited in links:

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