Eric Holder: no more civil forfeiture without warrant/charges

In a surprise move, the US Attorney General has ordered police departments to cease the practice of civil forfeiture (basically, stealing stuff and selling it) unless the forfeiture is related to a specific warrant or charge.

Although Holder could certainly have gone farther (by limiting civil forfeiture to cases in which there was a conviction), this is a most welcome (and again, surprising) move from the AG, who has been pretty quiet on the issue, and whose DoJ was complicit in helping local cops evade the minimal checks and balances in the system.

State law still allows for civil forfeiture without charge or warrant, but without the federal statute (and its notorious equitable sharing rules), outright theft will be harder for police departments.

Withdrawing civil forfeiture revenue from police departments will have an immediate and sharp impact on surveillance: according to some stellar research by the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Dave Maass, there's a kind of revolving door between forfeiture and spying. Local police forces use surveillance to find pretenses to seize assets from rich targets, then use the assets to pay for further wiretapping capabilities.

When local law enforcement agencies participated in federal investigations, the federal government paid them back by divvying out a portion of the proceeds from the seizures. These agencies included police department, sheriff offices, and district attorney offices, as well as investigative task forces that span multiple jurisdictions. These agencies were required to broadly report how they spent the money in a variety of categories, including electronic surveillance, on an annual basis.

Between 2011 and 2013, law enforcement agencies in California spent a total of $13.6 million in funds from the federal asset forfeiture program on electronic surveillance equipment, a statewide average of $4.5 million per year.

To give a sense of scale: that was enough to cover the cost of wiretap equipment (including installation fees, supplies, and equipment) for the entire state of California, with change left over.

To look at it another way, that's enough to pay for equipment in more than 3,500 wiretaps, far more than these agencies actually conducted. This could indicate that either agencies may have bought more equipment than they needed to carry out these wiretaps, used the funds to pay staff, or that they may have spent significant portions of the money on surveillance that doesn't require a wiretap order.

Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police [Robert O'Harrow Jr., Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich/Washington Post]

Asset Forfeiture and the Cycle of Electronic Surveillance Funding
[Dave Maass/EFF]