DOJ Suspends Asset Seizures

Former Deputy LAPD Chief of Police Stephen Downing explains why a law meant to target drug kingpins was harming everyday people since only 13 percent of seizure victims were ever charged with a crime

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On December 23, the Department of Justice announced that it was suspending a program that made it easier for local police departments to confiscate property seized from citizens. The program, called equitable sharing, gave law enforcement the ability to prosecute asset forfeiture under more lenient federal law. Under federal law the police could keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize, regardless of whether or not a crime has been charged. According to a report issued by the Institute of Justice, between 1997 and 2013, 87 percent of DOJ seizures were civil, and only 13 percent were criminal. This means that only 13 percent of the victims–that’s right, 13 percent of the victims–of asset forfeitures were charged with a crime.

Now joining us to discuss the DOJ’s recent move is Stephen Downing. He’s the former deputy chief of police for the LAPD, and he’s also a member of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, also known as LEAP. Thanks so much for joining us, Stephen.

STEPHEN DOWNING: It’s my pleasure, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Stephen, let’s talk about the original intent of the equitable sharing program. What were its initial objectives?

DOWNING: Well, the original objective when the authors took this measure to Congress was to capture drug kingpins. They believed, and probably rightly so, that if they could seize the assets of drug kingpins they would cripple drug trafficking. But that’s not what the result was.

DESVARIEUX: And as I said in my intro, the results show that only about 13 percent of the victims of these asset forfeitures actually were charged with a crime. So what happened? Why didn’t the program meet its objectives?

DOWNING: Well, moreso than that, the result is not really the seizures of kingpin treasuries, it’s the seizures of the little guy. I think that the average seizure across the country, and I could be corrected, but it’s somewhere in this neighborhood, the average seizure is about $8,000. So that means the little guy is losing his car, he’s losing his house, he’s losing whatever cash he has. And the government is taking that amount of money from the little guy without charging them with a crime, and also the little guy does not have the resources to fight that. Just to get an attorney to fight an asset seizure will cost you about $25,000 up front. So when you’re losing $10,000, most of these little guys walk away from it.

DESVARIEUX: But you do have some people that argue, Stephen, that state law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, they’re using this property to provide basic funding for their departments, and that puts less burden on taxpayers. So couldn’t states and the federal government kind of come up with a balance, something more transparent, to tweak the law so there’s, there’s more balance with civil liberties?

DOWNING: Sure. They could, they could tweak the law so that a conviction is required before you can seize an American’s property. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way the law in California, for example, is. If you want to use asset seizure law at the state level in California, you have to have a conviction. But this federal law allows local law enforcement to circumvent their own state laws. The law enforcement in California are sworn to uphold the law of the state, but they jump over this.

And also, law enforcement should receive all of their funds as a result of the political budgetary process, not–they should not be allowed to go out and seize money that they keep in their own coffers and provide for their own slush fund. What has happened, the unintended consequence, is that many police departments across the nation have assigned personnel away from public safety issues, and have them focus strictly on seizing property so that they can supplement their budgets.

DESVARIEUX: All right. And the suspension, we should say, is actually only a temporary measure. But even if the DOJ were to make this permanent, Stephen, do you see this as just sort of curing a symptom and not really remedying the disease, which some would argue is the war on drugs?

DOWNING: Well, I see it as an incremental process toward ending the war on drugs. Asset seizure is one of the many harms that have occurred through the war on drugs. And so we can chip away asset seizure, legalization of cannabis, and those kinds of processes. The people are going to eventually see that the sky is not falling with these moves to remove the harms of the war on drugs, and get on a better course.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Stephen Downing, joining us from California. Thank you so much for being with us.

DOWNING: You’re sure welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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