During a meeting with county sheriffs in February, Donald Trump was puzzled by criticism of civil asset forfeiture, which all the cops in the room viewed as an indispensable and unobjectionable law enforcement tool. "Do you even understand the other side of it?" the president asked. "No," one sheriff said, and that was that.
Trump might get a more helpful answer if he asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who last week reintroduced a bill aimed at curtailing civil forfeiture abuses. As Sensenbrenner observed, "These abuses threaten citizens' Constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement."
Civil forfeiture lets the government confiscate property allegedly linked to crime without bringing charges against the owner. Since law enforcement agencies receive most or all of the proceeds from the forfeitures they initiate, they have a strong financial incentive to loot first and ask questions never, which explains why those sheriffs were not eager to enlighten the president about the downside of such legalized theft.
A new report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) highlights the potential for abuse. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, the OIG found, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) took $4.2 billion in cash, more than 80 percent of it through administrative forfeitures, meaning there was no judicial oversight because the owners did not challenge the seizures in court.
Although the DEA would argue that the lack of challenges proves the owners were guilty, that is not true. The process for recovering seized property is daunting, complicated, time-consuming, and expensive, often costing more than the property is worth.
Consider Charles Clarke, a college student who in 2014 lost $11,000 in savings to cops at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport who said his suitcase smelled of marijuana. No contraband was found, and as is typical in such cases the allegations in the federal seizure affidavit were absurdly vague, merely asserting that the money had something to do with illegal drugs.
Clarke, who admitted smoking marijuana but denied selling it, ultimately got his money back with interest. But it took two years, and it was possible only because the Institute for Justice represented him for free.
Sensenbrenner's bill—which has 15 cosponsors, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and six other Republicans—would help forfeiture victims like Clarke by allowing them to recover attorney's fees after a settlement and providing legal representation for those who cannot afford it. Instead of requiring owners to prove their innocence (as the law currently demands), the bill would require the government to disprove it (as in a criminal trial). The bill also would increase the burden of proof in forfeiture trials from "preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence."
Although civil forfeiture's defenders argue that it helps destroy drug trafficking organizations, the OIG found that the Justice Department "does not measure how its asset seizure and forfeiture activities advance criminal investigations." Looking at a sample of 100 cases where the DEA seized cash unaccompanied by drugs without a warrant, the OIG found that only 44 led to arrests, advanced existing criminal investigations, or prompted new investigations.
"Without fully evaluating the relationship between seizures and law enforcement efforts," the OIG warns, "the Department cannot effectively assess whether asset forfeiture is being appropriately used, and it risks creating the impression that its law enforcement officers prioritize generating forfeiture revenue over dismantling criminal organizations." The report notes that the Justice Department's incuriosity about the circumstances and consequences of forfeitures also means it has little sense of "the extent to which seizures may present potential risks to civil liberties."
Sensenbrenner's bill would help clear up the mystery by creating a publicly available forfeiture database and requiring the OIG to audit a representative sample of forfeitures each year. Digging into those details will make it harder for those who benefit from civil forfeiture to pretend they do not understand the other side of it.
© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.