Back in July, I wrote about the chorus of criticism that greeted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to revive a civil asset forfeiture program that had been suspended by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Under the so-called “adoptions” program, the federal government is empowered to “adopt” property seized by state and local law enforcement agencies, process it under federal civil asset forfeiture laws, and then return the bulk of the proceeds to the state or local agency that originally took the property. In addition to quoting from many of the program’s critics, I noted that:
[T]he decision to revive the … adoptions program is particularly bad news for North Carolinians. That’s because, while our state laws are among the best in the country in terms of protecting us from asset forfeiture abuse, federal asset sharing programs like the one that has just been reauthorized by Jeff Sessions make it possible for state and local law enforcement agencies to evade those protections. The more those programs expand, the greater the risk of asset forfeiture abuse in North Carolina.
Today, I’m pleased to report that the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t any happier about Sessions’ decision to revive the adoptions program than the critics I quoted in my previous Legal Update. Last week, by a nearly unanimous voice vote, the House approved a series of budget amendments—including one submitted by Justin Amash (R-MI) and another by Tim Walberg (R-MI)—that would block funding for the revived adoptions program.
Unsurprisingly, many of those who criticized Sessions’ decision have now come forward to praise the House vote. In a recent Carolina Journal article, Kari Travis quotes two lawyers from a public interest law firm that specializes in representing the victims of civil asset forfeiture abuse:
Adoptive forfeiture is popular among law enforcers in North Carolina, said Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
Once the feds process all money and property, state or local police pocket 80 percent of the profits. This is especially troubling in North Carolina, where cops gain an advantage by using the federal exception. …
Between 2000 and 2013, the state raked in more than $162 million in profits from asset forfeiture, Alban said.
More than 56 percent of the money came from “adoptive” seizures.
The remaining 44 percent of the money came from “joint task force” operations in which federal and state authorities worked together to seize assets.
Because North Carolina leans heavily on the adoptive seizure method it will probably feel the effects of the congressional action, Alban said.
The amendment would ensure state enforcement agencies follow North Carolina law.
“That sounds crazy, because you’re thinking, of course they have to follow North Carolina law,” Alban said. “They’re North Carolina law enforcers! But that’s sort of the pernicious problem with the equitable sharing program. It allows law enforcement agents to ignore their state law.”
The sole purpose of civil forfeiture should be to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at IJ.
If North Carolina law enforcers are required to follow state rules, then asset forfeiture would serve its purpose, she said.
Legal scholar, and long-time civil asset forfeiture critic, Ilya Somin is also pleased. In a recent piece in the Washington Post he offers cautious words of praise for the House vote:
This vote is a rare show of bipartisan, cross-ideological unity in a good cause. But it remains to be seen whether it will pass the Senate. In addition, because this is a defunding measure rather than an outright ban on equitable sharing, it might potentially be possible for the Justice Department to try to perpetuate equitable sharing in ways that technically don’t expend federal funds. … That said, this vote is definitely a step in the right direction, and a sign that respect for federalism and property rights is not completely dead in Congress.
Indeed, it is a good cause. And passage by the Senate would be a bit of good news in what has otherwise been a dismal congressional session.