Reform of Civil Asset Forfeiture & the Failed Policies From the War on Drugs

Posted by Meital Manzuri, Esq. | Jan 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

During the terrible wave of violent crime in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, the aggressive Democratic Party expanded the punitive policies of the state and federal governments. In an effort to escalate the war on drugs, this expansion of punitive policies has created many ripples in the government, whether or not actual crime was reduced. The door for mass incarceration and police militarization was opened, while a wide range of other programs are easily abused in current circumstances.

In recent times, some Democrats such as Attorney General Eric Holder have made efforts to try and mend the mistakes of the past, working hand in hand with Republicans from Congress to reform numerous federal criminal justice policies. In 2013, Holder had announced his plan to sidestep harsh and mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. Ultimately, he wanted to remove the five to ten year prison sentences which had been swelling the prison populations for quite some time, and in turn, harming minority and low-income communities.

Holder's new approach to reform is geared towards asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture allows authorities to confiscate property and cash that were obtained through illegal means or used for illicit funds. Asset forfeiture has been legal for nearly a century, yet it gained wider use in the 1980s for the war on drugs. As explained by Dara Lind for Vox, state and federal asset forfeiture laws are used and taken advantage of to build up “slush funds” to pay for things ranging from weapons to coffeemakers. In 1984, a specific law allows state and local authorities to share the proceeds from forfeiture with federal counterparts. Further, a Justice Department program called “equitable sharing” helps facilitate these transfers to benefit the police.

While it may sound brilliant to use criminal property in order to fund crime-fighting, it has proven to be a disastrous practice. Although citizens have the ability to challenge forfeitures, departments are rarely sued, asset forfeitures generally occur without oversight or accountability more often than not. This leads to a system of corruption and abuse, and countless people have been trapped by police departments to be deprived of their property and cash.

Now, under Holder's direction, the equitable sharing program run by the Justice Department is coming to an end. The goal is to create a fairer justice system that protects innocent people and their property rights. However, state asset forfeiture laws will remain in place, yet they are not as generous in sending funds to the police departments as the federal program had been.

About the Author

Meital Manzuri, Esq.

Managing Partner.

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