– Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced sweeping changes to a federal civil asset forfeiture program that local law enforcement agencies have used to seize property.

The asset forfeiture practice has been criticized, including by civil liberties groups and members of Congress, because it enables law enforcement to seize possessions — such as cars and money — without an indictment or evidence that a crime has occurred.

Under new rules announced Friday, federal agencies will no longer be able to accept or "adopt" assets seized by local and state law enforcement agencies — unless the property includes firearms, ammunitions, explosives, child pornography or other materials concerning public safety. Holder described the new policy as the "first step in a comprehensive review."

The new policy does not affect asset seizures made under joint state and federal operations, and local law enforcement may still seize property under state laws.

The program was developed when most states didn't have their own asset forfeiture laws and had no legal authority to retain seized items, raising concerns that seized property might ultimately return to the hands of criminals.

But Holder said all states now have asset forfeiture laws, so it's no longer as necessary for local law enforcement to turn over seized property to federal agencies.

Legislation in Congress is planned to make additional changes in asset forfeiture.

Civil liberties groups praised the move.

"This is a significant advancement to reform a practice that is a clear violation of due process that is often used to disproportionately target communities of color," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. "Now Congress and state governments should pass legislation to end the practice of seizing innocent Americans' property and protect their due process."

Associated Press