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Attorney general's decision would limit federal sharing of asset forfeitures

A federal program long used by Jackson County law enforcement to seize funds and property in drug cases is getting the ax, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday.

The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Eric Holder's decision would end almost all distribution of proceeds from cash and vehicle seizures to state and local agencies under what's known as "equitable sharing." The arrangement allows state and local law enforcement agencies to have the property they seize in criminal investigations "adopted" by the federal government. The government keeps a small fraction of proceeds from the seizure and returns the majority to the local agency. 

While judges have long ordered criminals to forfeit the proceeds and instruments of their crimes upon conviction, civil forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, seek to prove that the property itself is inherently illicit — such as drug funds — and take place independently of any criminal prosecution. The decision follows years of criticism of federal civil forfeitures by civil libertarians, who argue law enforcement agencies have been using the process as a tool to generate revenue rather than to further criminal investigations.

Medford police Chief Tim George resists the notion law enforcement agencies have been abusing the program, saying his department is employing forfeiture as a tool against drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. "I'm not in argument that you should have a criminal charge (to seek forfeiture of seized property)," he says. "We're not involved in a case unless there's a criminal nexus to it."

For years, the Medford Police Department has brought its drug detection dogs to the city's FedEx and U.S. Postal Service shipping facilities to conduct checks of packages, resulting in the seizure of tens of thousands of dollars from what police say are cash payments for marijuana grown locally and shipped illegally out state. Medford police Lt. Kevin Walruff, who heads the multi-agency Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement team, says his investigators sometimes directly seek federal adoption of seizures for funds or property worth more than $5,000, but have typically sought adoption through their federal partners' in-house forfeiture counsel. An FBI agent is assigned to MADGE as an investigator, and the task force regularly works alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration and agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations.

"We certainly took advantage of equitable sharing," George says. "Generally, on our cases, it's been an 80-20 split." 

Equitable sharing has proven a boon to Oregon counties that have been heavily restricted from pursuing civil forfeitures on the state level since the early 2000s, when a series of ballot measures increased the burden of proof for law enforcement, who had been heavily relying on civil forfeitures to fund local drug task forces. When state and local agencies do obtain asset forfeitures at the state level, the law requires that 40 percent of the funds go towards drug treatment, 7 percent into a fund for drug lab cleanup programs, 10 percent to the general fund and 3 percent to the Asset Forfeiture Oversight Advisory Committee.

While local law enforcement have and do seize real property in many cases, Walruff says there's always the question of whether money is still owed on the property and how much it will cost to maintain it. Cash is easier to seize than a car with an outstanding loan. "What we don't want to be doing is be spending the government's money, or the people's money, to seize property," Walruff says.  "If storage is going to cost $600, and the car's worth $500, it's not worth it."

Both George and Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls, whose department also contributes investigators to MADGE, said the decision wouldn't have any impact on their agency's funding for routine operations. "You can't budget for forfeitures," Falls said. "You can use them to purchase 'extracurriculars' after you've spent your budget."

George says his department expects to receive further guidance on forfeitures from its federal partners in light of the decision, which doesn't affect state and local agencies' ability to pursue forfeitures on the state level. Seized assets that pose a threat to public safety, such as firearms or property associated with child pornography, are also reportedly exempt from Holder's decision and still eligible for federal adoption.

Reporter Thomas Moriarty can be reached at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.