When police call it “The Equitable Sharing Program” – hide everything you own

CivilAssetForf-1250x650Police Department Bought Harleys, Camero, Tasers, With Nearly $1 Million Seized From Citizens Under Controversial Program

A new report from the Justice Department found that a police department located in a Chicago suburb used nearly $1 million it received from a controversial government program to buy items including motorcycles, a Chevy Camaro and a boat, raising further questions about whether the program should exist at all.

According to an audit conducted by the Justice Department and released today, the Willow Springs Police Department in Willow Springs, Ill., spent $966,625 in funds from the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program to purchase items the federal agency contended were outside the program’s intended purpose of enhancing law enforcement operations.

The Equitable Sharing Program was suspended late last year for budgetary reasons, but was restarted by the Justice Department earlier this month.

“The excess and deficiencies of the Willow Springs Police Department are symptoms of a larger problem,” Jason Snead, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal. “The lack of transparency, oversight and accountability in how equitable sharing funds are spent allow for this sort of ridiculous purchase.”

 The Equitable Sharing Program was suspended late last year for budgetary reasons, but was restarted by the Justice Department earlier this month.

In its audit, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General reported that the Willow Springs Police Department spent more than $116,000 it received from the Equitable Sharing Program to purchase 13 vehicles, some of which were used sparingly, including two Harley Davidson motorcycles, a 2013 Chevy Camaro and a 2013 Ford F-250.

The police department also used money from the program to fund overtime and payroll costs, and purchase computer equipment, Tasers and office furniture.

Each of the motorcycles the department bought were further outfitted with new wheels, exhaust, chrome upgrades and heated handgrips, and driven 512 and 799 miles, respectively. The Justice Department, noting the $23,562 cost to adding upgrades to the Harley Davidsons, called them “unnecessary.”

Not only did the government find that the motorcycles were used sparingly, but the Chevy Camaro the Willow Springs Police Department purchased with Equitable Sharing funds only registered 518 miles on its odometer as of July 2015. The police department bought the car, which the government said was a “pursuit car,” in June 2014.

Though officials with the Village of Willow Springs did not refute the purchase of the Camaro—and the use of equitable sharing payments to buy it—the law enforcement agency did disagree with the characterization of the car as a “pursuit vehicle.” Instead, town officials said the Camaro was used for “covert operations” that do “enhance law enforcement operations.”

The Justice Department also called into question a 2013 Ford Expedition and 26-foot boat the Willow Springs Police Department bought using forfeiture proceeds.

According to town officials, which responded to the Justice Department’s audit, the police department bought the Ford Expedition for its former police chief. Though the SUV was a “civilian model,” it was “fully loaded.”

The Willow Springs Police Department also bought a second Ford Expedition using forfeiture proceeds, which was $13,000 cheaper than the “fully loaded” model.

The boat, bought primarily with a grant awarded by the Department of Homeland Security, was intended to be used for patrolling the Des Plaines River, according to the Justice Department.

It’s been used just three times by the Willow Springs Police Department.

Under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, participating law enforcement agencies seize cash, cars and property under federal asset forfeiture laws, which experts like Snead say allows police departments to circumvent state laws that are often times more strict. Through their participation in the program, agencies keep up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds, with the remaining money going to the federal government.

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to seize property, cash and cars if they suspect it’s tied to a crime. In some instances, though, the property owner is never charged with a crime.

Many who advocate for reforming civil asset forfeiture laws at both the state and federal level point to the Equitable Sharing Program as one aspect in need of changing.

Under the controversial program, police departments must use the money they receive for “law enforcement purposes,” which civil asset forfeiture opponents argue is vague and can lead police departments nationwide to purchase unnecessary items.

“Law enforcement agencies that receive these funds do not have to justify their purchases or expenses to elected legislators or the public. It is only via audits, sometimes years after the fact, that the public ever finds out about any improprieties,” Snead said.

“That makes it all the more likely that waste and abuse will continue to occur, if not in Willow Springs, than in the countless other agencies that partner with DOJ to get their share of the hundreds of millions of dollars of forfeiture funds doled out each year,” he continued.

Snead warns the Equitable Sharing Program furthers the profit incentive that he believes civil forfeiture creates, as law enforcement agencies can use forfeiture dollars to pad their budgets, particularly in times when funding may be cut.

“It is ironic that earlier this week, DOJ heralded the return of equitable sharing payments by stating that law enforcement agencies desperately need these funds for critical law enforcement operations,” Snead said, “yet only days later the DOJ IG is noting that this agency spent $67,000 on chrome-accented motorcycles it barely uses.

Melissa Quinn Melissa Quinn is a news reporter for The Daily Signal.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know

1. What is civil asset forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize property that they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity. In fact, the owner of the property doesn’t even need to be guilty of a crime: Civil asset forfeiture proceedings charge the property itself with involvement in a crime. This means that police can seize your car, home, money, or valuables without ever having to charge you with a crime. There are many, many stories of innocent people being stripped of their money and property by law enforcement.

2. Why would we ever do this?

Today, civil forfeiture is intended to give law enforcement a tool they can use to go after organized crime, including drug dealers and their organizations. While its roots in the common law are deep, modern civil forfeiture is justified primarily on the grounds that it allows law enforcement to seize the assets and ill-gotten gains of these criminals, using the property and proceeds to fight against other alleged criminals. Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture is also used by law enforcement as a way to generate revenue, and many of its targets are innocent members of the public.

3. But don’t police target only criminals?

Unfortunately, no. There are many stories of innocent people having their property seized. For example, between 2006 and 2008, law enforcement agents in Tenaha, Texas, engaged in a systematic practice of seizing cash and property from innocent drivers with absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. In Philadelphia, police seized the home of two sisters whose brother, who did not live there, showed up while trying to evade the cops. In Detroit, cops seized over a hundred cars owned by patrons of an art institute event—because the institute had failed to get a liquor license. You can be totally innocent and still be unable to stop the government from seizing your property.

4. What if I’m innocent? Surely, innocent people can’t have their property taken.

Being innocent does not mean that a state has to return your property. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the “innocent owner” defense is not constitutionally required. Furthermore, even in states where you do have an innocent owner defense, the burden is typically on you. Your property is presumed to be guilty until you prove that you are innocent and that your property therefore should not be forfeited. In other words, you must prove (1) that you were not involved in criminal activity and (2) that you either had no knowledge that your property was being used to facilitate the commission of a crime or that you took every reasonable step under the circumstances to terminate such use. And all the while, the police retain your property. To cap it all off, the success rate for winning back property is low. Pragmatic property owners, however innocent, may reason that it is best to cut their losses rather than challenge the forfeiture in court.

5. That’s crazy!!! This can’t happen in my state.

It might be crazy, but civil asset forfeiture happens in every state in the union. Even if the state has laws that limit it, state and local law enforcement authorities can still seize property by partnering with federal law enforcement officials in a system called “equitable sharing,” and payouts to state and local agencies have increased nearly 250% over a 12-year period.

6. But everybody at least gets their day in court, right?

No. In fact, the majority of federal civil forfeitures end administratively, meaning that the property is automatically forfeited after a certain period of time because the owner of the property did not challenge the seizure. Forfeiture proceedings might be barred because of waivers procured by law enforcement officials who pressure property owners to renounce ownership of their cars, homes, or money in order to avoid facing (often bogus) criminal charges. This quid pro quo raises serious fundamental questions about the fairness of the process. And if a property owner holds out and goes to court, he or she will face an uphill, costly, and lengthy battle.

7. My state has good forfeiture laws on the books, so none of this is a problem, right?

Not necessarily. Federal law can do an end run around good state law. A process called equitable sharing allows local law enforcement officials to team up with federal law enforcement agents to seize property under federal forfeiture law that could not be seized under applicable state forfeiture law. Through equitable sharing, local law enforcement agencies pocket a portion of the proceeds from the seizure and the feds keep the rest. This is a way for local law enforcement to circumvent state law and continue to profit from civil asset forfeitures.