Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced yesterday that civil asset forfeiture would continue to be a viable practice among law enforcement. In fact, Sessions went so far as to roll-back asset forfeiture restrictions that were put in place during the Obama Administration after a series of high-profile cases and reports revealed egregious misuses of the law which resulted in billions in seizures over several years for state and federal agencies. Sessions announced, “We will continue to encourage civil asset forfeiture whenever appropriate in order to hit organized crime in the wallet.”
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to take money or property from a citizen who is merely suspected of criminal activity — not charged or convicted. Though original asset forfeiture laws were aimed at drug cartels to interrupt their business and money, it use has expanded rapidly in recent years. It’s not being used just for “organized crime” anymore; that’s a red herring that gives police a green light to continue to abuse citizens and take their property without due process.
“Under the equitable sharing program, federal authorities may “adopt” state and local forfeiture cases and prosecute them at the federal level. Those local police departments get to keep up to 80 percent of the forfeiture revenue, while the rest goes into the equitable sharing pool and is distributed among partner departments around the country.” I gave credit to Obama for addressing asset forfeiture and restrictions were rightly implemented as a stepping stone to reign in this abominable practice. Sessions is now loosening those once again.
According to Reason, “The Justice Department did include several requirements that it says will safeguard the due process rights of property owners. The directives require state and local police to provide additional information showing probable cause that a crime occurred before federal authorities will adopt the seizure. Seizures of under $10,000 will have to be accompanied by a warrant, a related arrest, or the seizure of contraband. Absent those provisions, a U.S. attorney would have to sign off on an adoption.
Clarence Thomas wrote a scathing dissent of asset forfeiture last month when SCOTUS chose not to hear a case on the matter. He wrote, “this system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. He further pointed out, “because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture.”
Thomas is right to condemn the practice. Asset forfeiture is a practice that denies citizens the right to due process; no one should lose property because of mere suspicion of criminal behavior. Sessions and the Department of Justice is wrong on this matter.
For interested parties, here’s a link to the entire policy directive: