SHERIFFS OF NOTTINGHAM

04.01.16 11:00 AM ET

Justice Department Restarts Program That Allows Cops To Seize Assets From The Poor

The Justice Department just restarted a controversial asset forfeiture program—in part to fund local police departments—which critics say unfairly targets poor people and minorities.

Just as the Justice Department announced this week that it is resuming a controversial program that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars in seized assets to police departments around the country, a new report says the practice disproportionately targets low-income and minority communities.

A report by the Center for American Progress, released on Friday, says that “a growing array of studies indicates that low-income individuals and communities of color are hit hardest” by the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Under these sorts of laws, police can seize citizens’ property—cash, cars and even houses—without ever convicting them of, or in some cases even charging them with, a crime. The laws were created to fight drug trafficking in the ’80s, but civil liberties groups say the perverse incentives just as often lead police to target everyday people.

The Center for American Progress report includes one example of a Philadelphia woman in her mid-60s whose house was seized by police after her niece’s boyfriend was arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs outside the house. She was eventually able to recover her house with the help of pro bono legal assistance, but most people caught in the asset forfeiture system aren’t so lucky.

Since civil asset forfeiture isn’t a criminal proceeding, there is no right to a public defender, and the system is heavily weighted in favor of the government—essentially forcing property owners to prove they are innocent or pay hefty fines to retrieve their possessions. In some states, residents must pay cash bonds before they can even challenge a seizure.