Crime & Justice

Holder limits civil asset seizure; SoCal law enforcement benefitted most in state

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a Sept. 4 news conference at the Justice Department in Washington.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a Sept. 4 news conference at the Justice Department in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Attorney General Eric Holder has moved to limit the federal government's role in a civil asset forfeiture program that has allowed local and state law enforcement agencies to seize and spend billions of dollars of Americans' assets, and newly available data show the top beneficiaries of the program in this state were all based in Southern California.

A Washington Post investigation brought attention to the program last year, and comedian John Oliver devoted a lengthy segment to civil asset forfeiture on his HBO show:

According to the Post, the civil asset forfeiture program netted authorities at least $2.5 billion nationwide over a period covering the fiscal year ending in 2008 through fiscal year 2014, and 81 percent of that money went back to local agencies.

Data acquired and shared by the Post show the program has been a windfall for California law enforcement agencies, which spent more than $418 million in proceeds from property and cash seized through the Justice Department program.

The money was spent on weapons, informants and electronic surveillance, as well as more mundane items like overtime and training. 

The 11 biggest spenders in the state are based in the southern region. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the largest sheriff's department in the nation, spent over $42 million in funds from the program. It was also the fifth biggest spender nationwide.

The L.A. Police Department came in second for the state, spending nearly $30 million. Below are the top eleven spenders:

Agency Total spent
Los Angeles County Sheriff Department $42,697,423
Los Angeles Police Department $29,674,550
Regional Narcotics Suppression Program $23,479,034
Anaheim Police Department $17,743,334
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department $12,536,223
Pomona Police Department $9,573,795
San Diego Police Department $9,179,270
Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department $8,812,607
San Diego County Sheriff's Department $7,598,068
L.A. Impact $7,318,467
Downey Police Department $6,697,017

On Friday, Holder announced a new policy prohibiting federal agencies from taking possession of assets seized by local law enforcement, unless the property includes firearms or and other materials that concern public safety, according to the Associated Press.

The Justice Department is not the only source of cash from seized property — law enforcement also receive money through the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department will change its policy as well, according to the Post.

Here's more background on the program from AP:

The Justice Department has long allowed local law enforcement agencies to turn over seized assets to the federal government and then share in the proceeds.

The program was developed at a time when most states didn't have their own asset forfeiture laws and didn't have legal authority to forfeit seized assets.

But Holder says because all states now have civil or criminal asset forfeiture laws, it's no longer necessary for local law enforcement to turn over seized property.