Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered an end to a controversial, civil-asset-forfeiture practice known as federally-adopted forfeiture, or “federal adoption” for short. It’s called that because it applies to cases in which state or local agencies seize money or property under state law but then offer the property to the federal government to be forfeited under federal law because they can’t or don’t want to proceed under state law for some reason. (More on that below.) Under federal adoption, state or local agencies receive eighty percent of the value of the forfeiture back in their coffers while the federal government keeps the rest.
The Attorney General’s order now prohibits that practice for all types of property but five: firearms; explosives; ammunition; property associated with child pornography; and any other property that directly relates to public-safety concerns and whose adoption is approved by the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division.
In all other cases, state and local agencies will need to pursue forfeiture of the money or property under their state’s laws.
Why might that matter? In some states, the law requires a higher standard of proof before the police can take and keep your property without even charging you with a crime (let alone convicting you of it). Some states also require the proceeds of forfeiture to go into the state’s general fund, not into the coffers of the very agency that seized it.
Why might it not matter? For starters, some states have laxer forfeiture laws than the federal government. Also, the Attorney General’s order leaves the federal program intact and available for state or local seizures that involve any hint of federal participation. That includes seizures made by state or local agencies in a joint federal-state task force, a joint federal-state investigation, an ongoing federal investigation, or even, apparently, a brand-new federal investigation if federal officials simply go to federal court and get a federal warrant to take custody of the property. So workarounds abound.