Civil Asset Forfeiture Suspended
On Dec. 21, 2015, local law enforcement agencies received notification from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that the agency is temporarily suspending payouts under the federal Equitable Sharing Program. Civil forfeiture is a legal tool that empowers law enforcement authorities to seize cars, money, homes and any other property that is suspected to have been derived from, or used to facilitate, criminal activity. Congress initiated the asset forfeiture program in the 1980s to fight organized crime and drug gangs by targeting their contraband. At the same time, federal law enforcement agencies were authorized to retain forfeiture proceeds to finance their operations and to disburse forfeiture funds to state and local law enforcement authorities that partnered with the federal government.
The news of the suspension of this program in December came as a surprise to local law enforcement agencies as well as to the DOJ. Each year, Congress reduces the asset forfeiture fund (AFF) level to help address federal budget/deficit needs, so a reduction of some kind was anticipated. In 2015, the federal budget proposal included a reduction of $746 million, a level that is higher than previous years, but still an amount that the DOJ would be able to absorb through various budget strategies. However, in approving the Omnibus spending bill at the end of December, Congress reduced the fund by an additional $458 million, which depleted the program. This decision by Congress has been enacted into law and the funds have already been transferred into the general Treasury fund. As a result, there is currently not enough money to operate the program, although DOJ will be allowed to resume equitable sharing if additional funds come into the AFF.
According to DOJ officials, the department is working to identify ways to maintain the program. At this time, they are not sure when equitable sharing payments will start up again but they hope it will be later in 2016 as additional funds come into the AFF. DOJ is asking that local agencies continue to submit requests with DAG-71 forms on new matters, because they anticipate that when the fund recovers, the Department will be able to act on those sharing requests.
The National League of Cities (NLC) has indicated that any cases already adjudicated with the forms submitted will be paid. Any cases that are in the justice system but have not yet received a determination in the courts are suspended. As the fund is replenished, these requests will be considered on a first-come, first-served basis.
It should be noted that Congress is still considering additional changes to the equitable sharing program, which could have a punitive impact on all local agencies, not just the bad actors. When talking to Georgia’s senators and congressmen, please let them know that the suspension of the equitable sharing program and depletion of AFF funds has significant consequences for local law enforcement agencies and this action by Congress has severely limited their ability to pay for critical items that have already been budgeted.
GMA is continuing to communicate with NLC on this issue and will provide updates as new information becomes available.