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In a significant policy shift late last week, the Justice Department announced its decision to suspend the Department’s “adoption” program, or ”Equitable Sharing,” wherein local police departments use federal law to seize homes, cars, cash, and other personal property without having to prove that a crime occurred, and share the proceeds with the federal government.

The program has been used to help local police departments circumvent state restrictions aimed at curbing abuses where property is seized on the mere suspicion that it may have facilitated a crime and local police departments keep the property for their own use, whether or not a crime is ever proven. According to The Washington Post, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under the program since 2008.

Examples of such behavior include police in Volusia County, Florida who have stopped motorists on I-95 South and seized cash in excess of $100 on suspicion that the funds were intended to purchase illegal drugs; and, police in Washington DC who seized a grandmother’s home after her grandson visited her house and made a telephone call to purchase illegal drugs. By “adopting” these types of cases, the Justice Department takes the forfeited properties and returns 80 percent or more of the funds (or items seized) to the local police for their own use. In so doing, the funds are not turned over to a state’s general treasury as required by state law.

The Justice Department’s decision is in response to years of strong bi-partisan opposition to the program. It also follows a recent disclosure in Texas, where the Dallas County District Attorney was found to have used forfeited funds to secretly settle a February 2013 accident he caused on the Dallas North Tollway.

Parties most affected by the government’s “adoption” program are individuals and small businesses who lack the financial resources to fight local and federal prosecutors in federal court. The Department’s decision last week is the first step in ensuring that abusive forfeiture practices by law enforcement authorities do not continue unchallenged.

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