Documents uncovered by the Institute for Justice reveal federal officials have inserted themselves into efforts to reform state asset forfeiture laws, working behind the scenes to ensure states continue to participate in the federal forfeiture program.

As reported by TechDirt, emails from Department of Justice and Treasury Department officials appear to urge local law enforcement to fight reform efforts by pointing out just how much money these agencies will “lose” if they can’t buddy up with the feds. In fact, information from the emails popped up in lobbying letters sent to legislators in California.

The California District Attorneys Association is circulating a set of emails from officials with the DOJ and Treasury indicating that the federal government would disqualify the state from receiving funds from the federal Equitable Sharing Program if it passes the pending reforms. The documents also reveal that the DOJ has already disqualified New Mexico from participating in the program, following passage of a sweeping civil forfeiture reform bill this spring.

A California asset forfeiture reform bill making its way through the legislative process prompted the federal meddling.

California already has some of the strongest state asset forfeiture protections in the country, but state and local law enforcement circumvented them by simply handing off cases to their “federal partners.” That allowed the federal government to proceed with asset forfeiture cases under it less restrictive criteria, and local police still got a big cut of the proceeds under federal asset forfeiture programs. SB443 would close the loophole. The legislation provides important restrictions, requiring state officials “to seek or obtain a criminal conviction for the unlawful manufacture or cultivation of any controlled substance or its precursors” before seizing assets.

The letter distributed by the CDAA bemoans the loss of a potential cash cow for state and local law enforcement agencies.

The current version of the bill would essentially deny every law enforcement agency in California direct receipt of any forfeited assets. California’s asset forfeiture law will be changed for the worse, and it will cripple the ability of law enforcement to forfeit assets from drug dealers when arrest and incarceration is an incomplete strategy for combating drug trafficking.

We aren’t talking small change here. The CDAA claimed California state and local law enforcement raked in more than $86 million in federal asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” money in 2014 alone.

In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill into law that prohibits the state from confiscating property from suspects until after a conviction. As a Treasury Department official pointed out to a California DA, that prompted the feds to cut New Mexico out of the federal program, ostensibly because federal prosecutors can’t guarantee they can secure convictions in a “timely manner.”

It appears the feds made an example of New Mexico and are now hanging it over the heads of California legislators in attempt to undermine reform efforts there.

The feds must really want the federal asset forfeiture program to continue. That provides the only logical explanation for their insertion into the debate. Otherwise, they wouldn’t meddle in a state process. State asset forfeiture reform in New Mexico and California could threaten the federal program’s very existence if other states follow their lead.

So, why do the feds care so much about maintaining a program that funnels the vast majority of funding back to states?

We can only guess.

Perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

Asset forfeiture not only violates the rights of everyday Americans, forcing them to defend their property against sanctioned law enforcement theft, even if never charged or convicted of a crime, it also allows the federal government to control state and local police, and further its unconstitutional drug war. It incentivizes “policing for profit” on one hand and dubious state-federal partnerships on the other. The feds clearly want this to continue.

States can stop it.

The path forward is simple and clear – follow New Mexico’s lead, and stop state and local governments from participating in these federal forfeiture programs.


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