Saturday, April 16, 2016

244.4 - Update: what "equitable sharing" spawns

Update: what "equitable sharing" spawns

This is an Update of something I talked about last week: civil asset forfeiture and Equitable Sharing. Civil asset forfeiture is a program under which police can seize your property based merely on their belief that it was used in, or gained through, illegal drug activity. Equitable Sharing is a federal program under which cooperating local police can keep up to 80% of the value of assets seized - enabling local police departments to circumvent state laws, state laws which often allow them to keep a much smaller portion of the value of seized assets, and occasionally none at all: It all goes to the general state fund.

Equitable Sharing had been largely stopped in January; last week I had the bad news that it had been reinstated. Equitable Sharing is corrupt outgrowth of the corrupt regime of civil forfeiture, itself an outgrowth of the corrupt and failed war on drugs. I want to give you an example of what that corruption looks like.

Willow Springs is a suburb of Chicago. Its police department has obtained money from Equitable Sharing. That money is supposed to be used for "enhancing law enforcement operations." But according to a new audit conducted by the Justice Department and released about two weeks ago, the police there have spent just under 1 million dollars on items that do not meet that standard, such as 13 vehicles, including two chromed-up, tricked-out Harleys, a Chevy Camaro, a Ford F-250, and a 26-foot boat, all of which have been rarely used.

The police even bought what the town itself described as a "fully loaded" Ford Expedition SUV for a former police chief.

This is just another example - there are many - of how Equitable Sharing and the whole practice of civil forfeiture which it embraces serve as an incentive for police departments to take first and think about it later. Because since this money comes from the federal program, there is no requirement for them to justify their purchases to local legislators or the public. There is no oversight. The only mechanism for oversight is a possible DOJ audit, which may not occur until years after the fact.

The issue of civil forfeiture goes beyond local police departments, of course. Prosecutors often will resort to seizing the property of people accused of crimes - not convicted, mind you, accused and so much for innocent until proven guilty. Consider the case of Sila Luis, accused by the feds of Medicare and banking fraud. When she was indicted, she had $2 million in assets left and prosecutors, deciding that those assets would be needed for restitution, seized everything she had - including assets that those same prosecutors admitted had no relation to the charged crime.

She challenged the seizure, saying she needed the "untainted" assets to hire a lawyer for her defense. Happily, in a rare even if tiny dent in the who regime of asset seizure, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 the end of March that seizing the untainted assets was a violation of Luis's 6th amendment right to counsel of her choice and could not be allowed because, in the words of Stephen Breyer, the untainted property "belongs to the defendant, pure and simple."

This is a very narrow victory as it seems only to involve assets which prosecutors agree is unrelated to the crime and which is needed for a defense, but at least it is a victory, it declares that there is a line the government can't cross, even if that line is pretty far away.

By the way, the three dissenters were Anthony Kennedy, Sam Alito, and Elena Kagan - all of who seem to think that the government stripping a defendant of the financial ability to defend themselves is just Jim dandy.

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