Last week the Justice Department issued new rules which seek to address some of the problems with civil asset forfeiture. It may seem like just another Band-Aid on a hopelessly broken system, but the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) new procedures on civil asset forfeiture announced Tuesday show real progress. Prior to these new rules, federal authorities were free to confiscate bank accounts if they suspected the owners to be making “structured deposits,” or deposits designed to avoid reporting requirements.
Small businesses are especially susceptible to asset forfeiture since they make numerous deposits that come just under the $10k reporting threshold.
The DOJ rules reconcile federal policy with more traditional understandings of due process and property rights. Federal authorities will now only seize bank accounts when and if they have determined that a defendant “has been criminally charged or has been found to have engaged in additional criminal activity.” This gives regular Americans an important layer of protection from facing the confiscatory wrath of federal attorneys.
According to the announcement, if there is not enough evidence to convict an individual of a crime, prosecutors can seek a warrant from a judge if they can prove a probable cause. This apparent loophole in the incentive-fix is addressed by forcing authorities to return confiscated property within 150 days of the appropriation if authorities do not file an indictment.
All of these are excellent developments, but the last line of the press release puts a wet blanket over otherwise great news: “The policy applies to all Department of Justice Attorneys,” meaning the new rules only apply to federal authorities. While it is unreasonable to expect comprehensive and complete reform of the civil asset forfeiture regime, that line reminds the public that only one facet of the problem has been addressed. It will take the combined efforts of the state and federal governments to put this blemish on the national justice system to rest.
The Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund was $2 billion in 2013. For that amount of money they could buy 13 brand new F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed Martin and become a military power over-night. But while having half the budget of Argentina’s military seems like a much-needed boost to crime fighting, most Americans can recognize the problems with collecting such vast sums of money through a mechanism like civil asset forfeiture. Hopefully, this showing by the DOJ will be followed by more smart reforms at the state and federal levels.
Looking at you, New Mexico.