The Justice Department today announced that it is resuming a controversial practice that allows local police departments to funnel a large portion of assets seized from citizens into their own coffers under federal law.
The "equitable-sharing" program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. The Justice Department had suspended payments under this program back in December, due to budget cuts included in last year's spending bill.
"In the months since we made the difficult decision to defer equitable sharing payments because of the $1.2 billion rescinded from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring Equitable Sharing payments," spokesman Peter J. Carr said.
Asset forfeiture is a contentious practice that lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted — and in many cases, never charged — with wrongdoing. Recent reports have found that the use of the practice has exploded in recent years, prompting concern that, in some cases, police are motivated more by profit and less by justice.
The Justice Department's equitable sharing program allowed state and local authorities to pursue asset forfeiture under federal, rather than state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize.
Asset forfeiture is fast growing -- in 2014, for instance, federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets. That's more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year.