The Justice Department's equitable sharing program allowed state and local authorities to pursue asset forfeiture under federal, rather than state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize.DOJ is bowing to pressure from law enforcement authorities whose funding depends specifically on them being goons.
Asset forfeiture is fast growing -- in 2014, for instance, federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets. That's more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year.
Reformers had hoped that the suspension of the program back in December was a signal that the Justice Department was looking for ways to rein in the practice. But that no longer appears to be the case.
"This really was about funding, not a genuine concern about the abuses rampant in the equitable sharing system," said Scott Bullock, president of the Institute for Justice, in an interview. The institute is a civil liberties law firm that researches asset forfeiture and advocates on behalf of forfeiture defendants. It has reported extensively on what it calls the "profit motive" created by the equitable sharing program -- because police get to keep a share of the items they seize, they have an incentive to take more stuff.There is simply no reasonable way to defend such practices. Here's what they do to people.
Annette Shattuck says that since the charges have been dismissed, the Drug Task Force has returned some of her property. But much of it is damaged. Electronic items are missing power cords and remotes. Her and her husband's phones were smashed. They returned her husband's guns and the safe he stored it in, but they didn't return the key. Two of the kids' insurance cards are missing. Shattuck says her marriage and birth certificates haven't been returned, and since the Task Force does not itemize seized documents in its paperwork, it has no record of taking them in the first place.This is just horrifying and unacceptable in a non-totalitarian system. But we're sliding in the wrong direction, especially when it comes to police powers and the structure of our criminal justice system. Hell we can't even guarantee a right to defense anymore.
Years of state budget cuts to the Louisiana Public Defender Board, coupled with an unstable local funding system reliant on New Orleans court fines and fees, have reduced the number of staff attorneys at the Orleans public defender's office from 78 in 2009 to 42 today. Young felony defenders like Anderson have found themselves juggling 300 or more cases at once, twice the number recommended by the American Bar Association.Notice also the flawed funding system based on fines and fees. Even the public defender's office relies on traffic ticket revenue in order to do its job. The guarantee of at least some semblance of justice is a basic underpinning of a free society. And we're allowing that to dwindle away over the principle of usage fees. I'd love to say it's time to do something about this but, as we know, the state is out of money...
Faced with such crushing caseloads, New Orleans' chief defender, Derwyn Bunton, announced in January that his office would refuse certain felony cases where defendants faced lengthy sentences. With a shortage of attorneys qualified to provide competent defense for those cases, Bunton said, the office would focus instead on lesser felonies. As a result, around 110 indigent people accused of crimes in New Orleans have had their cases wait-listed or refused in recent months. More than 60 of them still sit in jail awaiting a lawyer.