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AG Holder on Civil Asset Forfeitures: 5 Things You Should Know

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday that the U.S. Justice Department will strictly limit local and state law enforcement agencies' use of so-called federal "adoptions" for civil asset forfeitures.

The federal asset forfeiture program originally began in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs, reports The Washington Post. At that time, few states had similar forfeiture laws; however, federal adoption of seized property allowed local and state law enforcement agencies to prevent seized property from being returned to criminals. But federal adoptions have continued to be used even as states passed their own forfeiture laws. According to the Post, since 2008 local and state police agencies have used a federal civil asset forfeiture program called Equitable Sharing to seize $3 billion worth of cash and property.

What do you need to know about Attorney General Holder's announcement? Here are five facts:

  1. What is civil asset forfeiture? Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property such as money, vehicles, and real estate when they believe it may have been part of criminal activity.
  2. You don't have to be charged with a crime for assets to be seized. Civil forfeiture allows authorities to seize property even in cases where the property owner has not been charged with a crime. It is then up to the property owner to prove that the seized property was not used for criminal activity. These seizures often occur during traffic stops, which have led to lawsuits accusing police of using the forfeitures illegally.
  3. What is federal adoption? According to the Department of Justice, a federally adopted forfeiture occurs when a state or local law enforcement agency seizes property pursuant to state law, then requests that a federal agency take the seized property and forfeit it under federal law. While state forfeiture laws often require that the proceeds from seizures go into the state's general fund, under the federal adoption program, law enforcement agencies were able to share in the proceeds with federal agencies.
  4. Federal adoption is still allowed under some circumstances. Although the attorney general's order will prohibit adoptions of most seized assets, adoption will still be allowed for property that directly relates to public safety concerns, such as firearms, ammunition, explosives, and child pornography.
  5. State forfeitures are still allowed. The new rules on federal adoption of forfeited assets will have no effect on seizures under state law. The new rules also have no effect on seizures resulting from joint operations involving state and federal authorities or seizures pursuant to federal warrants.

If you've been subject to civil asset forfeiture, an experienced attorney near you can advise you on how this announcement may affect your case.

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