Equitable sharing is a federal program that incentivizes state and local police to bypass state-level restrictions on asset forfeiture.
Both the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury operate the program. Under the equitable sharing, local police seize assets they suspect were involved in criminal activity, sometimes without even making an arrest. Through a process known as adoption, the federal government prosecutes the forfeiture case under federal law and splits the proceeds with the local police. Through this program, state and local law enforcement agencies receive up to 80 percent of the cut.
In 2017, the federal government distributed over $295 million to state and local law enforcement agencies.
“Equitable Sharing” incentivizes prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government. State and local police work the case and then claim it involves federal law or crosses into federal jurisdiction. The local officers then transfer the case to the federal government through the adoption process. Forfeiture cases involving joint task forces and local/federal partnerships also often end up prosecuted under federal law.
Some states require a conviction before prosecutors can permanently seize assets and don’t allow law enforcement agencies to keep forfeiture proceeds. Equitable sharing creates a way for police to bypass these strict state laws. Through adoption, the feds can prosecute the case under the looser federal forfeiture procedures and then return up to 80 percent of the proceeds back to the local cops. This allows police to circumvent conviction requirements and collect forfeiture funds even if the state process prohibits it.
Until recently, California faced this situation. The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.
Under Attorney General Jeff Session, the federal government is ramping up equitable sharing. Last July, Sessions issues a policy directive for the Department of Justice (DOJ) that reiterated full support for the equitable sharing program, directed federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and set the stage to expand it in the future.
Tenth Amendment Center
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