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Holder's Limits on Seized Assets Could Pinch Maine Police Departments' Budgets

A move that will limit how police departments benefit from assets seized during searches is drawing mixed reactions. Today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cracked down on the so-called Equitable Sharing program.

That's the program where state and local police departments can have seized assets "adopted" by federal agencies, who then share them back with the local department that seized them.

Under Equitable Sharing, local departments were allowed to keep the vast majority of the assets confiscated, thus skirting any state laws which could require that those assets be put into a state's general fund.

"They're used to buy equipment and buy things that departments can't afford in their regular budget process," says Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

Schwartz says the funds netted in such seizures can really help cash-strapped departments. The crack down, he says, amounts to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

"I think the government should have kept a better track of what was going on," he says. "I'm sure there was violations, people doing things they were not supposed to. And instead of correcting those, putting some safeguards in place, it's easier for them just to do away with it."

But asset forfeiture has come under fire in recent months from Congress, with members of both parties calling on the government to end Equitable Sharing in a letter to Attorney General Holder just a week ago. Critics say the program was basically incentivizing search and seizure.

"We had local and state police officers routinely pulling over drivers for what were often minor traffic infractions, press them to agree to these warrantless searches, and then seize large amounts of cash without any evidence of wrongdoing," says Alison Beyea, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Beyea says the federal program was the primary method by which departments practiced civil asset forfeiture across the nation. "And this will stop that practice."