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Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Nancy Mace, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting information about the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) efforts to address longstanding abuses of its Equitable Sharing Program, which allows state and local governments to partner with DOJ by transferring property, money, or assets that have been seized by law enforcement to the federal government for forfeiture which then shares up to 80% of the proceeds with local and state law enforcement agencies, regardless of state law.
“We are concerned that the Equitable Sharing Program creates a loophole allowing state and local law enforcement to seize assets from individuals without bringing criminal charges or a conviction, even in states that prohibit civil asset forfeiture,” the Members wrote. “In addition, we are concerned that DOJ does not conduct adequate oversight of law enforcement agencies participating in the Equitable Sharing Program.”
On December 8, 2021, the Subcommittee held a bipartisan hearing to examine the need to reform federal civil asset forfeiture programs, including equitable sharing, to prevent state, local, and federal law enforcement from abusing the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans. Expert witnesses testified that state and local law enforcement agencies use DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program to circumvent state laws aimed at curtailing civil asset forfeiture abuse. Between 2000 and 2019, DOJ paid at least $8.8 billion from its Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) to state and local agencies.
DOJ made limited reforms to the Equitable Sharing Program in 2015, but they were rescinded in 2017, despite significant concerns about the potential for abuse raised by Congress and civil society organizations. The Members expressed concern that there is insufficient oversight of how these equitable sharing proceeds are spent. For example, according to public reporting, one local sheriff’s department in Georgia used the funds to buy a $90,000 Dodge Viper for its D.A.R.E. program, and a police department in Texas used its funds to buy a $637 coffee maker. In 2019, the DOJ Office of Inspector General audited only three of the more than 6,800 state and local law enforcement agencies that participate in DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program.
The Members also raised concerns about reports that some of these law enforcement agencies participating in the program collect proceeds from asset forfeitures even when they have no clear role in the underlying asset seizure. Forfeiture proceeds are meant to be disbursed to agencies based on the number of hours spent participating in the seizure or other factors that indicate involvement, but in practice, some state and local agencies need not have any involvement in a forfeiture to profit from it.
In today’s letter, the Members requested that DOJ provide a staff briefing to address what steps the Department is taking to ensure local and state law enforcement agencies are not using the Equitable Sharing Program to circumvent state law and how the funds are requested, distributed, and overseen.
Click here to read the letter to DOJ.