A Washington Post investigation this weekend revealed that law enforcement in Oregon since 2001 got to keep $1.9 million in cash seized by police under a federal program that allows for forfeiture without a criminal charge or warrant.
In all, Oregon police seized $3.2 million under the program, known as equitable sharing, which lets police work with the federal government to seize property and keep a portion of its value.
The Post is running a three-part series exploring the rise of civil seizures in the United States and the abuse of cash seizures during traffic stops. The paper says $2.5 billion has been seized nationwide since 2001, and law enforcement kept $1.7 billion.
Law enforcement in Oregon was involved with 149 seizures through equitable sharing, the seventh lowest number in the nation, the Post reported. The Washington County Sheriff's Office received $255,369 from 14 seizures, the highest amount of any local law enforcement agency in Oregon.
Seizures of cash believed to be connected with a crime—a practice known as asset forfeiture—has risen more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2007 under the equitable sharing program, according to the Post investigation.
Critics of asset forfeiture say that the practice gives law enforcement an incentive to seize innocent people's property for profit.
Oregon ACLU Executive Director Dave Fidanque says that federal forfeitures have no regulation from Congress or any independent agency. However, voters passed limits on when state and law enforcement could collect forfeited cash.
"It's relatively easy under federal law to seize cash, land and other assets. It's much more difficult under Oregon law," Fidanque says. "One of our fears was that there would be more federal forfeitures once we tightened up state law."
Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties, says that Oregon's low number of federal forfeitures could be due to the relatively small number of federal law enforcement agents in the state, as well as Oregon's traditionally conservative approach to forfeiture.
"I think forfeiture can be a very valuable tool to make sure we don't reward crime, but if it doesn't have the proper sideboards on it, it can be abused," Bovett says. "There has to be a balance and I think we've struck that balance."