Department of Justice Threatens to Take Away Funds From States That Reform Asset Forfeiture Laws

While former Attorney General Eric Holder said at the beginning of 2015 that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had taken measures to prevent state and local police departments from seizing money, cars and other personal property without first charging a drug suspect with criminal activity, newly released documents show this move was nothing more than lip service to temporarily appease the opposing forces of unchecked police authority.

Indeed, drug reform activists rejoiced earlier this year when Holder released a statement suggesting that, “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.” Unfortunately, the then-leader of the DOJ failed to admit that the U.S. government would soon twist the arms of local lawmakers and police agencies to become opposing forces for the reform of state asset forfeiture laws or run the risk of losing their federal funding.

A series of documents obtained by the Institute for Justice reveals that the DOJ has teamed up with the Treasury Department to bribe state law enforcement groups to oppose any effort to change the way the civil asset forfeiture laws operate in their state. If they fail to comply, and the state does pass reforms to this system, the federal government indicates that it will strip away the federal funding the state has been receiving through the Equitable Sharing Program.

The documents show that New Mexico, where Governor Susana Martinez put a stop to civil asset forfeitures earlier this year, has already suffered this castration.

In the case of California’s recently-killed Senate Bill 443, which would have changed the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to require a conviction before police could permanently hang on to seized property, several emails were exchanged that not only brought to the attention of lawmakers the tremendous revenue the bill would cause them to leave behind, but also suggested that it would hinder the DOJ from greasing the coffers of state law enforcement agencies. Basically, the federal government would be forced to cut them off because securing convictions takes too long.

“I highly doubt our federal agencies can figure out whether a conviction occurred in any timely manner,” wrote Melissa Nasrah, legal counsel for the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture. “[It] seems the legislation, in effect, takes decision-making authority away from Treasury. Accordingly, I think I would still advise our policy officials here that it would be prudent to not share with CA agencies should this law be passed.”

This was all it took for the California District Attorney’s Association to draft a letter to Senator Holly Mitchell, one of the authors of the asset forfeiture reform bill, which was CC’d to every member of the California legislature, telling her thanks, but no thanks in regards to the passing of such a proposal. In the letter, the CDAA suggests that it cannot support a measure that “would essentially deny every law enforcement agency in California direct receipt of any forfeited assets” because it would “cripple” their ability to profit when “arrest and incarceration is an incomplete strategy.”

The CDAA goes on to express concerns over the fact that if the law was passed, all federal forfeiture money would be “subject to a criminal conviction” under the U.S. government’s statutory guidelines, potentially preventing the state from receiving funds from the Equitable Sharing Program. Essentially, the association argued that they would not stand behind a bill that prevents them from capitalizing on suspected drug dealers because they do not have enough faith in the ability of the local criminal justice system to obtain convictions before Uncle Sam pulls the plug on the cash register.

It should come as no surprise that the California State Legislature submitted to these scare tactics and allowed the reform bill to die last week on the Assembly floor. Reports show the current asset forfeiture law is responsible for generating nearly $85 million per year for the state. You would be hard pressed to find a group of bureaucrats willing to let go of that much cash just to protect those people associated with illegal drugs – even the innocent ones.

It is apparent that no message that comes from the Department of Justice in regards to reforming drug laws can be taken at face value. In addition to Holder’s misrepresentation of civil asset forfeiture law amendment, it was recently discovered that the DOJ intentionally mislead Congress on an effort to prevent federal funds from being used to prosecute the medical marijuana community. In fact, none of the “memos” the DOJ has passed within the last year have amounted to anything. But unfortunately, until concrete laws are put into place on Capitol Hill, federal enforcers will likely continue doing whatever it is they want.

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