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Justice Department To Halt Seizure Of Assets


Yesterday, the Justice Department severely limited what's known as civil asset forfeiture. It's a program that essentially allowed police officers to seize the money or property of a suspected criminal. Pull over a drug dealer, grab the piles of cash in the trunk, keep the cash, hurt the drug trade - that was the idea. In practice, the policy was abused, almost as soon as it went into effect more than 30 years ago. Billions of dollars were seized. Back in September, Robert O'Harrow and a team at the Washington Post uncovered tens of thousands of cases like this one.

ROBERT O'HARROW: Mandrel Stuart, who was a barbecue restaurant owner out in Stanton, Virginia - he was driving to buy supplies and equipment. He had a wad of cash - $17,500 in cash. He was pulled over and detained, had all his money taken and then was set free without any charges being filed. In case after case, we found people, often times people of color, who are being stopped by police on the highway, many of them people who live their lives in what's known as cash economy. They don't have bank accounts. They don't have credit cards. A lot of those people had their money just taken, and the onus was on them to then go fight the federal government, which meant hiring a lawyer who might typically have cost more than the money that was seized. Therefore, they were stuck.

RATH: Can you explain why police can seize and keep assets from suspects? And underscoring again, we're talking about suspects, not convicts.

O'HARROW: The law that allows this is called a civil asset forfeiture law, and it enables authorities to take property or cash from somebody under civil law. And in those cases, it's the item - the thing that's charged with some relationship to crime, not the person.

RATH: And because these are civil actions against inanimate objects, you have these bizarre court documents with titles like United States versus a pile of cash, basically, or some stolen goods or things like that.

O'HARROW: It's a strange, upside-down system that subverts our notions of due process. In this case, when the money or cash is taken, it's, in effect, guilty until proven innocent.

RATH: So what was the intent of it? What was it meant to do, and how to get to where it is now?

O'HARROW: It's a legacy of the war on drugs. It allowed federal agencies to partner with the local and state authorities. Locals could make a seizure and then the federals would process it under federal law. And interestingly enough, what came next was September 11, 2001 and the terrible terror attacks. In reaction to that, the Justice Department and the new Department of Homeland Security asked local and state police to be the eyes and ears of security across the land, and it's at that point where you see a new blossoming of civil seizures pushing the dollar value of these seizures to new heights.

RATH: Now, what happened with the Justice Department action on Friday didn't actually put a full stop to this kind of asset seizure.

O'HARROW: It's very important to note, in fact, that civil asset forfeiture is an exceedingly powerful and legitimate tool for law enforcement if used properly with great restraint. So the attorney general boxed out a huge portion of seizures that have shown to be a source of abuse, but he allowed civil seizures in cases where federal authorities are intimately involved. And I think the idea there is that there's clear oversight, and they will have boots on the ground to be able to establish whether a crime has really occurred.

RATH: Robert O'Harrow is an investigative reporter with the Washington Post. Robert, thanks very much.

O'HARROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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