December 01, 2014

News Brief: Asset Forfeiture

The federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program issued a new 10-point voluntary code of conduct last month to address the problem of questionable seizure of property by police during traffic stops. The code, titled the “21st Century Interdiction Code of Conduct,” emphasizes that the purpose of interdiction is not to enhance law enforcement budgets. Current federal and state civil asset forfeiture laws, originally intended as tools to combat drug crimes, authorize the seizing of property that law enforcement officials have probable cause to believe has been used in illegal activity without the owners of the property being charged with or convicted of a crime. Law enforcement agencies benefit from the net proceeds of such forfeiture by seizing property under federal law rather than state and local law to participate in an equitable sharing program at the Justice Department (DOJ). Recent reports estimate that in the past 13 years state and local police have seized more than $2.5 billion in cash from individuals who were never convicted of crimes. The HIDTA, created in 1988, funds 733 initiatives through 28 operations nationwide to assist federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies in areas determined to be critical drug-trafficking regions. The new code states that members of the Domestic Highway Enforcement community should adhere to the “highest standards of integrity and ethical principles in the performance of traffic safety enforcement activities.” Reform of the civil asset forfeiture system has been recently discussed on Capitol Hill, but there has been no action. Proposed legislation, S. 2644 and H.R. 5502, would have increased the government’s burden of proof in civil forfeiture proceedings and require that proceeds from the disposition of forfeited property be deposited in the Treasury rather than DOJ accounts for law enforcement activities. The ABA, which has long backed reform of the civil asset forfeiture system, supported provisions in the legislation to shift the burden of proof in forfeiture proceedings to the government from individuals whose property was seized.

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