The Drug War is complicated stuff, and Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) is one of the more convoluted bits of it.
CAF is a license for theft by government. All levels of government want to take advantage.
The federal government does a lot of it, and individual states do a lot of it.
Up until last Friday, the federal government made it even easier for local police forces to do it — encouraging them to make all sorts of unnecessary stops and seizures, even if their state laws were against CAF or limited its use.
So even if a state wanted to shut down CAF in their jurisdiction, the police could ignore their legislators and continue regardless. This program, known as “Equitable Sharing” was limited by Eric Holder last Friday. It doesn’t end CAF of course, but it does allow state reform to go forward, which is a big fricking deal, and it has made the worst abuses less likely.
I think cautious excitement about the progress made is the right response, as I make clear in my video on the topic:
Some have described the initial response of outlets like the Washington Post, as overly exuberant.
I’m not so sure.
CAF is tremendously complicated and is implemented in at least 51 different ways (Do Puerto Rico and other jurisdictions have CAF as well?). There is room for a fair amount of both exuberance and skepticism on this topic.
I am confident, however, that Reason and Vox are missing the point.
Reason chimes in with “How the Press Exaggerated Holder’s Forfeiture Reform” and Vox has “Why Eric Holder’s Civil Forfeiture Reforms Can’t Keep Police From Taking Your Stuff“.
Vox’s headline is technically true, but both of the articles, I think, miss the significance of the reform.
Both of the articles are absolutely right to point out that CAF survives the reform, and that federal and local authorities can still steal your shit.
This remains an enormity, and something that has to be changed if we’re at all serious about our constitution. But Holder’s reform absolutely does deal with many of the program’s worst abuses.
The “Equitable Sharing” program is what gave birth to the horrifying stories told in Sarah Stillman’s incredible article “Taken” published in the New Yorker last year.
Federally sanctioned robbery of innocent motorists is now over in most jurisdictions.
To be sure, state sanctioned robbery of innocent motorists can still occur, but those laws can now be changed, and few states have programs that let the cops involved get away with as much as the “Equitable Sharing” program did.
State CAF laws mostly give the cops less money, and impose stricter limitations on the practice.
The “smoking gun” that both articles use demonstrates how deeply the authors misunderstand the DOJ forfeiture program.
Both point to the fact that only 13-14% of the forfeiture funds collected by the DOJ are affected by the reform.
This is true, but it does not say as much as they think it does. The reform still allows forfeiture in cases where the DOJ is actually carrying out an investigation. The DOJ is responsible for prosecuting people involved in financial fraud among many other things.
I believe the use of CAF to be an abomination in any case, but it is harder to be sympathetic to multi-millionaires who are losing their assets due to an actual investigation for fraud. The wealth of these defendants should show you the meaningless of that 14% figure, by the way.
Though the numbers are not available, the numbers of PEOPLE hurt by the “equitable sharing” program are certain to be much larger than those targeted by actual DOJ investigations.
Over half the 2013 forfeiture funds come from a single state, New York. This makes sense when you consider the amount of financial fraud prosecution that the DOJ must do in New York.
New York’s 53% of the Asset Forfeiture fund probably came from just a handful of fairly shady individuals, rather than the thousands to tens of thousands of innocents terrorized by “Equitable Sharing’s” 13-14%.
In fact, 7% of the DOJ’s entire national forfeiture fund in 2013 comes from a single taking of US currency in Dearborn, NY.
Any use of Civil Asset Forfeiture is wrong, but Vox and Reason are missing the point when they try to belittle Friday’s reform. The dollar amounts may not have changed dramatically, but the amount of people potentially harmed by CAF has fallen dramatically and real reform, that actually reins in state cops, is now finally possible.
Robert Morris posts videos every Tuesday on his youtube channel.