What Is the DOJ's 'Equitable Sharing Program'?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It sounds like a euphemism that would make George Orwell proud -- calling a process by which law enforcement can seize a person's assets even though they haven't been (and may never be) convicted of a crime, "sharing." But the Department of Justice is resuming its controversial "Equitable Sharing Program," even amidst serious political opposition to the practice.

So how does the seizure process work, and do you have any legal recourse if cops confiscate your property?

Cops or Robbers?

As The Washington Post described:

"The 'Equitable Sharing Program' gives police the option of prosecuting some asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law, particularly in instances where local law enforcement officers have a relationship with federal authorities as part of a joint task force. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize."

Essentially, local law enforcement agencies can seize assets from people under investigation, even when they haven't been convicted, or in some cases even charged, with a crime. And the police can keep most of what they seize, despite the outcome of the case.

Also referred to as "civil forfeiture," the practice has become so widespread that citizens lost more property to cops in 2014 than they did to burglars. All told, police departments raked in some $4.5 billion in civil forfeitures.

Seizing Up

Because the targets of these asset seizures are relatively poor, they often lack the time and resources necessary to challenge civil forfeitures and reclaim their property. Some states allow law enforcement to hold property for over 180 days before a forfeiture action is filed, and then months may pass before a decision is reached.

As we noted, though, there has been some pushback on civil forfeiture and other procedures like the Equitable Sharing Program. Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can't seize assets from a criminal defendant before trial if those assets were unrelated to the crime and needed to pay for legal representation.

If you've had property seized or confiscated by law enforcement pursuant to a criminal investigation, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney about your rights.

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