Will federal reforms on civil forfeiture mean more police accountability?

The Justice Department is changing the federal rules on civil forfeiture. Local police departments around the country have used the controversial practice to raise nearly $3 billion by seizing property from people who are suspected but not convicted of a crime. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker about the rise of civil forfeiture and the first signs of reform.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today announced a major shift in how state and local police departments are permitted to seize and auction off property from those who are not convicted of a crime.

    Hari Sreenivasan has more.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The practice by police departments is known as civil forfeiture. And it's raised nearly $3 billion for local departments around the country.

    But the practice has been controversial, because property has been seized from people who are only suspected of a crime, but not convicted.

    To talk more about this is Sarah Stillman, a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine. Her reporting nearly two years ago brought to light some of the abuses of the policy.

    So, Sarah, I tried to do it justice with a really tiny description, but explain civil forfeiture and what's gone wrong with it, just so we have an idea of why this is so significant today.

    SARAH STILLMAN, "The New Yorker": Well, civil forfeiture is basically a tool for law enforcement to seize people's property, their cash, their cars, other goods, and basically appropriate it if they believe that it has been used in the course of a crime.

    Now, the problem with it is that often that's been based on suspicion alone. So people don't actually have to be proven guilty of a crime before their property is taken.

    And the big news today is that Eric Holder basically announced that they were more or less ending a federal policy that had allowed local and state law enforcement agencies to take people's goods, turn them over to the federal government for forfeiture, and then they would get to take a lot of that money back and use it for themselves.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what kind of an impact will that have in all of these different thousands of police departments that use the federal law as part of the reason why they should be able to seize some of the property from someone that they pull over or involved in a crime?

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    Well, it's really a starting point.

    So, it means that there will be more accountability at the local levels. But a lot of this takes place at the state level when you're seeing abuses. And, sometimes, some of the cases I wrote about in a piece for "The New Yorker" some time ago involve people who — you know, an elderly couple in Philadelphia, for instance, whose son had sold about $20 worth of pot on the porch, and — or at least he was alleged to. He hadn't been proven guilty of the crime.

    And the family learned that after their home was raided by a SWAT team, the home was actually going to be seized and sold at auction to benefit the city with those funds. So you're still seeing abuses like that at the local level that won't be stopped by this, because this is essentially ending a federal program of cooperation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So, when we're talking about $2.5 billion or $3 billion in seizures, even any significant dent is that — like that is going to have resistance from law enforcement agencies, right?

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    Absolutely, because one of the issues with the perverse incentives is that law enforcement has become very, very dependent on these funds.

    And we have seen in many cases local police departments really don't have a lot of resources beyond the pool of money that they get from forfeiture, which can really be quite sizable. I looked at some small towns in Texas where almost the entirety of police operations, everything from money they were using to buy guns, to buy a lot of the things that you're seeing in these massive SWAT Raids, all of that was coming from forfeiture funds.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And are we seeing a slight shift in the political climate? Because there were — there was a little bit of bipartisan support today for trying to rethink these laws.

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    I think it's tremendously exciting. I think it's one of the areas — there are so many criminal justice reforms going on right now that are bipartisan.

    You see a lot of support on the left and right. And across the political spectrum, people have been calling for more comprehensive reforms. Both — there's been conversation about federal — there has been legislation proposed. And there's also many people looking at this at the state and local levels to push reforms.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what's motivating that?

    Is the shift that we were concerned 20, 30 years ago, when these laws went on the books, to say, let's get the criminals off the streets, let's take away the cash and the cars and maybe make some money off of it, and now it's more of an encroachment on our personal freedoms?

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    I think we're at a moment when we're really reassessing a lot of what came out on the war on drugs.

    So, these laws emerged from the 1980s. And they came out of, in many respects, a very good place, which is that people shouldn't be able to profit from their crimes. But as they became this, this means of funding law enforcement, a lot of that spun out of control.

    And I looked at a lot of places where, for instance, in Detroit, a bunch of kids were at a party at an art museum, a huge SWAT team raids the place, and they seized all of the young people's cars, without ever actually going through real procedures in court to prove them guilty of anything.

    So I think we're at a moment when we're really rethinking police militarization, and these issues are really intertwined.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, while those particular anecdotes sound heinous, I mean, I would imagine a law enforcement official will come back and say, you know what? Some of this does help us to make sure that they don't have access to the resources to keep committing these crimes.

    So how do you figure out what's appropriate civil forfeiture or seizure and what's abuse of power?

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    Well, there's two things about that.

    So, one important aspect of the reforms that were just announced is that there are exceptions for issues of public safety, where there are firearms involved or other things of that nature. And so I think that's important to understand.

    I think that there's a lot of ways in which the reforms that are being called for are still sort of part of a larger conversation that needs to be vetted in the public sphere.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Sarah Stillman of "The New Yorker" magazine, thanks so much.

  • SARAH STILLMAN:

    Thank you.

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