Yesterday, both houses of Congress reintroduced S 255, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, a bipartisan bill that would end the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, which incentivizes state and local law enforcement to seize private property without charging anyone with a crime in a process called civil asset forfeiture.
Reintroduction of the FAIR Act comes only days after Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to some kinds of forfeiture. Unfortunately, while Holder’s announcement is a step in the right direction, it only addresses about 14% of the total amount of seizures in question. An exception to the reforms announced on January 16th allows state and local officers to exercise civil asset forfeiture practices if they’re involved in a multijurisdictional task force that includes federal enforcement, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency. Because federal agencies are so frequently involved in civil asset seizures, state and local law enforcement can still keep about 86% of the money taken from otherwise innocent civilians. The FAIR Act however, would end the Equitable Sharing Program entirely.
“The FAIR Act is precisely what we’ve been advocating since Holder’s announcement,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “If this bill passes, it would topple a huge cornerstone of the drug war infrastructure that erodes community trust in police, promotes corruption within the ranks and distracts cops from doing their jobs. Once this incentive is gone, cops can spend their time protecting communities from truly dangerous criminals instead of taking money from innocent people.”
The FAIR Act was introduced to the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). An identical version of the bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA).
Since the 1980s, the drug war has been used as justification for continuing and expanding the Equitable Sharing Program. A court may allow for assets to be seized, including boats, cars, property and cash associated with the crime. But, in some places such as Washington D.C., the amount of money seized is almost never associated with a crime. Since 2009, Washington D.C. police have seized more than $5.5 million in cash, yet half of that money was seized in increments of $141 or less. False accusations of drug possession are consistently used as probable cause. Assets seized are then permitted to be used and misused by the department for anything they see fit, including new equipment upgrades, football tickets or “food, gifts and entertainment” for the department.
Civil asset forfeiture currently requires that there be “preponderance of evidence,” rather than “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means far less evidence is needed to charge the property. The Fair Act would establish that “clear and convincing evidence” be present in order to charge the property with a crime, and that the owner “used the property with the intent to facilitate the offense.”
LEAP is a nonprofit of criminal justice professionals who know the war on drugs has created a public safety nightmare of increased gang violence, police militarization and the fueling of dangerous underground markets.