The U.S. House of Representatives just took a knife to funding for the federal civil asset forfeiture program — a move that could help protect innocent North Carolinians and their property.
Lawmakers on Tuesday passed an amendment — part of a larger appropriations bill — that puts a clamp on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to expand civil asset forfeiture. Sessions announced the project in July, much to the chagrin of policy experts on both sides of the aisle.
Civil forfeiture allows law enforcers to seize property from a person suspected of a crime, even if he or she hasn’t been convicted or charged. Such practices are necessary when fighting drug crimes, Sessions said.
North Carolina bans the practice, requiring a criminal conviction before any property is taken. A federal loophole allows police to dodge the rules.
Such sidesteps are possible under the “equitable sharing program,” a practice letting state law enforcers team up with the feds to bypass state laws.
Tuesday’s amendment, sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, restricts “adoptive forfeiture,” an equitable sharing practice in which local law enforcers seize property and then call in the federal government to take over the case. The amendment does not end the practice altogether, however.
Carolina Journal reached out to several lawmakers to find out when the Senate may take up Amash’s bill, but received no response by press time.
Adoptive forfeiture is popular among law enforcers in North Carolina, said Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
Once the feds process all money and property, state or local police pocket 80 percent of the profits. This is especially troubling in North Carolina, where cops gain an advantage by using the federal exception, Alban said.
In 2014, a North Carolina civil asset forfeiture case caught the national spotlight when Lyndon McLellan, a Fairmont store owner, was stripped of his life’s savings.
Federal officials accused McLellan of fraud and drained his bank account of $107,702.66.
McLellan and his accountant disproved the fraud accusations. They traced the problem to a mistake made during a deposit at the local bank.
McLellan, who labored for 13 years to earn the money, waited one year for the IRS to return it. The agency tried to avoid paying his $20,000 in legal fees, but a district court forced the government to write another check.
McLellan’s case is just one of many in North Carolina.
Between 2000 and 2013, the state raked in more than $162 million in profits from asset forfeiture, Alban said.
More than 56 percent of the money came from “adoptive” seizures.
The remaining 44 percent of the money came from “joint task force” operations in which federal and state authorities worked together to seize assets.
Because North Carolina leans heavily on the adoptive seizure method it will probably feel the effects of the congressional action, Alban said.
The amendment would ensure state enforcement agencies follow North Carolina law.
“That sounds crazy, because you’re thinking, of course they have to follow North Carolina law,” Alban said. “They’re North Carolina law enforcers! But that’s sort of the pernicious problem with the equitable sharing program. It allows law enforcement agents to ignore their state law.”
The sole purpose of civil forfeiture should be to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at IJ.
If North Carolina law enforcers are required to follow state rules, then asset forfeiture would serve its purpose, she said.