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Justice Dept. to stop helping local police seize suspects' assets

Never thought that police officers or other government agents could seize your property and claim it for themselves without you even being convicted of a crime? Until very recently, this was a common practice between local law enforcement, including here in Michigan, and the U.S. Justice Department. In Michigan alone, police have collected more than $72 million from suspects -- again, not convicts -- since 2008.

The program allowing this system to function is called the Equitable Sharing Program. When a state or local law enforcement agency seizes assets officers suspect of being connected to a crime, often illegal drugs, they will send it to the Justice Department. The local police then request that the feds forfeit the suspect’s rights to the property.

Retaining 20 percent for itself, the Equitable Sharing Program returns 80 percent of the proceeds of the seized assets to the law enforcement body that sent it to the federal level.

This may seem like a just result when a person is convicted of a crime, and the seized property was the profits of that crime. But as the Washington Post reported in October, in 81 percent of cases involving a civil forfeiture, no one is ever indicted.

State and local police can rake in a lot of funds from this practice, and do not have to provide a great deal of detail about how they are spending it. Of the $72,393,414 collected by Michigan law enforcement from 2012 to October 2014, 36 percent was reportedly spent on unspecified “Other” expenses. The next largest percentage went to individual officers as salary and overtime pay -- more than $16 million.

Now it appears that revenue stream will be significantly reduced. After years of complaints that the Equitable Sharing Program seizes peoples’ property without waiting for a conviction, in January Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order changing the Justice Department’s policy. Now, it will not accept civil asset forfeitures unless the owner has been convicted of a crime. The Treasury Department will apparently do the same with its own forfeiture program.

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