The Office of Inspector General for the Justice Department released an audit yesterday reviewing the DEA's use of asset forfeiture, which is the policy that allows federal law enforcement agencies to confiscate the savings and property of Americans suspected of a crime. The report highlights no illegal or improper behavior on the DEA's part, but it does reveal a massive shift away from due process toward blatant thuggery.
According to a chart provided by the OIG, 86 percent of asset forfeitures that occurred between 2001 and 2011 were either administrative or civil, and only 14 percent were criminal. That means roughly 86 percent of the instances in which the government took cash, computers, cars, homes, life savings, investments, property or other assets, it did so without approval from a judge, a verdict from a jury, or any meaningful form of due process.
Dean Calbreath, formerly of the San Diego Union-Tribune, politely informed me that I misstated how administrative and civil forfeiture work. They do ultimately go before judges. Calbreath writes:
Civil forfeiture cases go before U.S. District Courts. Administrative cases go before administrative law judges, whose decisions can be appealed in the U.S. District Court.
I think one thing that may have misled you is the sentence that reads that administrative forfeitures take place "without judicial involvement." What that means is without involvement of the judiciary. The administrative law judges who oversee such seizures are part of the administration, not the judiciary, although their decisions may be appealed to the judiciary.
The OIG's chart is below:
Here's some clarification on the three types of asset forfeiture, courtesy of the Justice Department:
Administrative forfeiture is the process by which property may be forfeited to the United States without judicial involvement. Federal seizing agencies perform administrative forfeitures. Seizures must be based on probable cause. The authority for a seizing agency to start an administrative forfeiture action is found in 19 U.S.C. § 1607.
"Administrative forfeiture can be used to seize and forfeit the following:
• any amount of currency;
• personal property valued at $500,000 or less, including cars, guns, and boats;
• hauling conveyances of unlimited value.
"Real property cannot be forfeited administratively.
Criminal forfeiture is an action brought as part of the criminal prosecution of a defendant that includes the forfeiture of property used or derived from the crime. If the defendant is convicted, the judge or the jury may find that the property is forfeitable. Forfeiture is limited to the property interests of the defendant and only to property involved in the particular counts on which the defendant is convicted. Only the defendant's interest can be forfeited in a criminal case because criminal forfeiture is part of the sentence in the criminal case.
Civil forfeiture is a proceeding brought against the property rather than against the person who committed the offense. Civil forfeiture does not require either criminal charges against the owner of the property or a criminal conviction.