U.S. Justice Department reinstates federal role in police asset seizures

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 19, 2017 1:08 PM

By Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department announced on Wednesday that the federal government will reinstate a program that helps local and state law enforcement seize cash and other assets they suspect have been earned from crimes.

Local police will now be able to seize cash, often from those suspected of drug crimes, even in states that do not condone the policy.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said police will have to show there is a probable cause to take assets, but the person will not have to be convicted of a crime to justify the seizure.

He told reporters that most seizures were warranted because the "vast majority" of people who have property taken by police do not contest it in court.

"This is going to enable us to work with local police and our prosecutors to ensure that when assets are lawfully seized they are not returned to criminals," said Rosenstein at a media briefing at the Justice Department.

The Obama administration had rolled back the policy in 2015, saying it incentivized police to take money from people who had committed crimes.

Since former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder weighed in on the issue in 2015, Justice Department agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration has been barred from rewarding local police for taking possessions from people they stop.

Now, the federal government will again be able to return up to 80 percent of the assets seized to local law enforcement.

Rosenstein said the 2015 policy had a chilling effect on seizures by local law enforcement.

Many states have civil asset forfeiture laws that allow the state government to redistribute money seized for programs like education. But the federal program returns cash directly to the police department that took the asset, allowing them to buy new equipment or as drug sniffing dogs.

The Justice Department under President Donald Trump has made efforts to improve relationships with local and state law enforcement, which they viewed as damaged under the Obama administration. Rosenstein said that the president had heard from police who were concerned about the 2015 policy, but the administration was not acting to score political points with police unions that supported Trump's campaign.

"This is not an effort to appease any particular constituency. It is an effort to empower law enforcement," Rosenstein said.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; editing by Diane Craft)