It’s getting harder for law enforcement to seize the assets of citizens accused of marijuana offenses.
For a long time, state and local authorities have used a federal statute to justify their seizures of millions of dollars in property without due process of law. State statutes that allow asset seizures will remain in place, but it was the federal law that led to real problems.
The Constitution mandates that no one can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In most cases, this means the person must be convicted of a crime in an American court, typically by unanimous jury verdict.
But federal, state, and local authorities have used the supposed urgency of the drug war as an excuse for long-term property seizures that frequently turn out to be illegitimate.
Seized property funds police departments
Entire police departments are funded by property seizures. The federal statute allowed cops to seize money and other assets from people they stopped, then hand it to the federal government – which. in turn, gave most of the cash back to police departments.
The feds also benefited from the arrangement, especially the DEA. The program is 20 years old and was launched at the height of the drug war. State and local police have used it to seize property worth about $3 billion in 55,000 cases across the country.
Called Equitable Sharing, the program operates under civil law, allowing authorities to take the property even before criminal charges are filed.
New policy prevents feds from seizing property
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Attorney General Eric Holder said when he announced the change in January.
This is the most significant update to the federal policy since it was drafted in the 1990s. It won’t bar states from enforcing their own civil forfeiture laws, but the federal program was especially easy-to-use and allowed many departments to stay in business.
This has long encouraged cops to focus on marijuana growers and sellers. It’s easily the most popular illicit drug in the country, and the industry behind it will always employ a large number of people. The resulting profits can be astronomical, and that gave police a ready treasure chest to finance their continued crusades against potheads.
Potheads drew the short straw
It was a vicious cycle, in other words, one that encouraged law enforcement to bust stoners on the thinnest of evidence, take away almost everything they own, and then never give it back.
Indeed, some police departments have fiercely resisted court decrees that order them to return seized property. In the case of cannabis, of course, the property is worthless by the time it is returned.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were used to justify a broad expansion of the program that has become a nationwide boondoggle. The Washington Post reported last year that cops were routinely stopping drivers for minor or fictitious traffic offenses, manipulating them into consenting to warrantless searches, and seizing large amounts of cash with no evidence of a crime.
The money bred a common air of corruption in American police departments. Many cops used the money to buy luxury cars, military weapons, and extremely expensive combat gear, including armored cars for police brass.