WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department said this week it is putting off payments "for the time being" to local law enforcement agencies that participate in the federal asset forfeiture program.
The move comes after Congress recently took $1.2 billion from the department's asset forfeiture fund as part of budget maneuvering.
Under the program, the Justice Department permits local law enforcement to share proceeds of seized assets from investigations in which they participated. But significant cuts to the fund by Congress mean those "equitable sharing" payments are being put on hold.
Justice Department officials say they remain committed to the program and are not shutting it down but that, at least temporarily, they do not have the money to pay police departments out of the fund.
"The department does not take this step lightly. We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing while continuing to operate the program and meet our other fiscal obligations," M. Kendall Day, chief of the department's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering section, wrote in a letter this week to local law enforcement agencies.
Day said that there is a possibility the department could "resume its sharing on some or all of the deferred payments if there are sufficient funds in the budget."
The announcement does not affect the many other sources of funding that the Justice Department provides to local law enforcement.
The asset forfeiture practice has been criticized, including by civil liberties groups and members of Congress, because it enables law enforcement to seize possessions — such as cars and money — without an indictment or evidence that a crime has occurred.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder announced sweeping changes earlier this year, limiting the ability of federal agencies to accept assets seized by local law enforcement unless the property includes firearms, ammunition, explosives, child pornography or other materials concerning public safety.