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Justice Department Rolls Out New Policy to Seize More Money Under Asset Forfeiture

The new directive also includes some safeguards for property owners, but civil liberties groups say they don’t go far enough.

Yin Bogu/SIPA/NewscomYin Bogu/SIPA/NewscomThe Justice Department, rolling back an Obama-era directive, will seize more cash and property from suspected criminals, whether or not they have been charged with a crime, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday.

At a televised meeting with law enforcement leaders from around the country, Sessions laid out a new policy directive regarding the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars a year in asset forfeiture revenue to state and local police departments.

"President Trump has directed this Department of Justice to reduce crime in this country, and we will use every lawful tool that we have to do that," Sessions said. "We will continue to encourage civil asset forfeiture whenever appropriate in order to hit organized crime in the wallet."

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice that allows police to seize cash and property suspected of being connected to criminal activity. The property owner does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to have his or her property seized and forfeited by the government.

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. The new policy lifts restrictions put in place by former attorney general Eric Holder in 2015 that limited when federal authorities could adopt forfeiture cases.

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to combat drug trafficking and other organized crime, and they argue the equitable sharing program provides essential funding for police equipment. The body armor used by police at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, one attendee at Wednesday's meeting noted, was bought using equitable sharing funds.

However, asset forfeiture opponents say the program allows police departments to skirt stricter state laws surrounding asset forfeiture by having their cases moved to the federal level. And while police should be well funded, they argue, that money shouldn't come property seizures that aren't accompanied by criminal convictions and due process protections.

A 2014 Washington Post investigative series found that police raked in $2.5 billion since 9/11 in cash seizures during highway traffic stops, all of them without warrants or accompanying indictments. In one notorious case, Oklahoma police seized more than $50,000 from a touring Christian rock band from Burma on suspicion that they money was connected to drugs.

More than 20 states have passed some form of civil asset forfeiture reform in recent years, and incidents like those above have also led to federal reform efforts by a bipartisan group of civil liberties organizations and lawmakers in Congress.

"The Fifth Amendment protects us from the government depriving us of our property without due process of law," Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) says in a statement to Reason. "I oppose the government overstepping its boundaries by assuming a suspect's guilt and seizing their property before they even have their day in court."

Earlier this week, responding to Sessions' preview of the upcoming policy directives, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) urged the Justice Department to consider the constitutional concerns raised by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his notable dissent in an asset forfeiture case this June.

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.

Law enforcement leaders applauded the decision.

"Next to putting cartel leaders in the penitentiary, asset forfeiture is the strongest tool law enforcement has to hurt the drug cartels and assist law enforcement in the fight against illegal drugs," National Sheriffs' Association president Harold Eavenson said in a statement. "Minimizing the ability to utilize this tool properly will only make the fight against the cartels more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors."

Civil liberties groups like the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, said the safeguards won't stop abusive seizures or eliminate the perverse profit incentives that lead police to go after average citizens, rather than cartel bosses.

The only way to fully protect innocent Americans from civil asset forfeiture "is to eliminate its use altogether," Darpana Sheth, an IJ attorney said in statement Wednesday.

"We have consistently warned that the modest reforms put in place in 2015 could be rolled back with the stroke of a pen—and that is precisely what Attorney General Sessions has done today," Sheth said. "The DOJ's directive, announced to a room full of law enforcement officials who stand to reap the profits of this new policy, shows the fundamental absurdity of a system of justice which prioritizes funding law enforcement over protecting constitutional rights or fighting crime."

A $10,000 limit would not have stopped several high profile cases like the Burmese rock band. Sheth says the policy expects law enforcement to police itself, rather than strengthening judicial review of forfeiture.

A Justice Department Inspector General report released this March found that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than $4 billion in cash from people suspected of drug activity over the last decade, but $3.2 billion of those seizures were never connected to any criminal charges.

Holder's 2015 reforms only restricted adoptive seizures, which account for a relatively small number of seizures that go into the equitable sharing fund. The majority of the seizures come from joint task forces of federal and local police.

"We would agree that the Holder reforms were modest, but they were still significant," Sheth said. "Rolling them back is definitely going to be a setback for people who believe in property rights and due process."

Sessions is a staunch defender of police and tough sentencing laws, and since taking over the reins of the Justice Department he has rolled back several Obama-era policies, such as directives to moderate how federal law enforcement prosecuted low-level drug crimes. In statement Wednesday, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Kanya Bennett said the new asset forfeiture directive was "part of Sessions' agenda to bring back the failed and racist War on Drugs."

"During widespread bipartisan momentum to reform asset forfeiture, it is outrageous that Attorney General Sessions wants to increase law enforcement seizures of people's money, cars, and other property," Bennett said. "We are talking about people who have not been convicted of a crime and are often not given a day in court to reclaim their possessions. Civil asset forfeiture is tantamount to policing for profit, generating millions of dollars annually that the agencies get to keep."

Photo Credit: Yin Bogu/SIPA/Newscom

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    Christ, what an asshole.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Going a little easy on him, no?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    If i said what i really want to say about malformed dumpster fetus Jeff Sessions, Reason would be getting another subpoena with a quickness.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    malformed dumpster fetus

    Fun "fact:" malformed dumpster fetus was Jeff Sessions' nick-name in college.

  • Juice||

    Could he be a bigger one? I mean, I think he's maxed out his asshole potential here.

  • ImanAzol||

    How many cartels have they shut down in the last 50 years using these "tools"?

  • creefer||

    None

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "President Trump has directed this Department of Justice to reduce crime in this country, and we will use every lawful tool that we have to do that," Sessions said.

    And then some! You yourselves will be able fund for the MRAP's we sent you lift kits and flame decals and builtin espresso machines for years to come!

  • dantheserene||

    I recently passed through Page County, VA, best known for being home to Luray Caverns and related tourist-trap operations. Their sheriff's department has an MRAP on display out front facing the big road. I'd love to know their justification for that.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Luray Caverns

    Great porn name.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I'd love to know their justification for that.

    Reminding the proles who's really in charge?

  • Rod Flash||

    There are gangs of third graders (also known as field trips) running all through the speleothems. If one attempted to play the Stalacpipe Organ who knows what chaos could result. Better sorry than safe.

  • Rhywun||

    If this is "lawful" then the Constitution isn't worth the parchment it's scribbled on.

  • SQRLSY One||

    It's not... For all of the "due respect" that our SCOTUS and our SCROTUS and our LEOs pay to to, we might as well be wiping our collective asses with it...

  • SQRLSY One||

    For those of you pondering extremely deeply, but afraid to ask... Afraid to reveal yer ignerince... "SCROTUS" stands for Supreme Cunts Retching On The United States...

    Well, NOW ye know!!!

  • dave b.||

    We haven't been under the Constitution since Wickard, and maybe even before that. The rule of law no longer exists, so I have no problems with people selectively breaking the law as long as it doesn't harm others

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    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.

    much safeguard. so due process.

  • Alsø alsø wik||

    It's like how all mass wiretapping requests are safeguarded by the need for a FISA court warrant....which is never, ever denied.

  • Jerryskids||

    Speaking of more money, don't know if anybody's mentioned the new pig book's out.

  • notJoe||

    Not interested. *Most* of what FedGov does is a waste; highlighting pork-barrel spending is like changing the light bulb in your refrigerator while your house burns down.

  • notJoe||

    Holder is a slimy POS, but Sessions elevates slimy POS to a whole new level.

  • Qsl||

    Holder was a sleaze, but I fear Sessions is a different animal entirely- a true believer.

    I imagine he can justify any abuse as long as it serves the greater good, and there are few things as dangerous who thinks he is serving something bigger than himself (cue ISIS).

    The next four years will be interesting times.

  • notJoe||

    "True believer": Excellent description Q.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    "Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he's right with God."

  • Tionico||

    he can "justify" the abuse as long as HE SAYS it serves the greater good.

    Funny thing, when I read MY copy of the Constitution I find plenty of places where FedGov, and all other government as well, are commanded to protect and respect our RIGHTS, both the ones spelt out in that document and the ones that are not. (which remain ours despite the leaving out). But NOWHERE do I find any place where it charges FedGov with the task of controlling any sort of market in substances, deciding and enforcing what we do/do not put into OUR bodies, or "keeping people safe".
    Sessions swore an oath to uphold and defend the CONSTITUTION. Not some concept or value set HE came up with and dragged behind him into his job.

  • Crusty Juggler :)||

    The body armor used by police at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, one attendee at Wednesday's meeting noted, was bought using equitable sharing funds.

    Because, you see, that's how thrifty the Orlando Police are with their budget.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Hey, apropos of this post, it reminded me of something I read this morning, and I gotta be honest with you, I can't quite make heads or tails of what this judge is saying. A snippet:

    "The citizens of Seattle are not going to pay blackmail for constitutional policing," Robart told a packed courtroom filled with city officials who largely expected the judge to approve the long-awaited legislation.

    Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 federal consent decree requiring the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to address excessive force and biased policing, said that he wasn't prepared to approve a work in progress, and that the constitution trumps any single element of the legislation.

    Holmes said the city will be looking for Robart's guidance on how to proceed, particularly on issues the city considers crucial to constitutional policing but that will require bargaining.

    "Judge Robart made it clear today that ensuring constitutional policing needs to be Seattle's top priority," Murray said in a statement. "Five years ago, when the previous administration was dragging its feet on meaningful reform, the relationship between police and Seattle's communities of color was fractured.
  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's all very confusing. is constitutional policing subject to union bargaining? And the point of the above is that the judge overturned the Mayor's executive order for police to start using body cameras, something the SPD has been against. So the judge, claiming he's defending constitutional policing, overturned a rule for body cams. I'm honestly not sure what's going on.

  • Tionico||

    This is the same eedjit "judge" who should have been debenched and disbarred after he illegally took up the case The State of Washington and the State of Minnesota vs Donald J Trump, as President of the United States... remember, the one on a hold on travel from certain midle east nations previously identified by the kinyun administration.... where this "judge" put a stay on that Executive Order. What the eedjit forgot is that ALL cases involving a "minister of the public trust" (president of US qualifies) OR one or more States (both Washington and Minnesota qualify) as parties to the action brought, MUST ONLY be taken up by the Supreme Court of the US and then ONLY on original jurisdiction.... per Art 3 Sec 2 Par 2. In other words, HE HAD NO AUTHORITY to even hear that case.... and here we have this clown going off again? SOMEBODY shut his piehole.

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    If a tiny meteorite crushed Jeff Sessions as he walked to this car I'd take it as a literal act of divinity.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Amendment V
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    Asset forfeiture is clearly unconstitutional and we should demand that these laws are struck down.

    The government wants to skirt this constitutional protection because for $5000 in seized cash they would have to give the person $5000 in compensation.

  • notJoe||

    I think it goes like this: "We're taking your $5,000 and in return we're not charging you with a crime. Isn't that compensation enough?"

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I think it's even simpler than that: "We're taking your $5,000. Because fuck you, that's why. You should just be thankful we haven't shot you... yet."

  • colorblindkid||

    How long until this goes to the Supreme Court and gets a 7-2 ruling against all civil asset forfeiture? Can we just get that over and done with?

  • notJoe||

    Ahhh, it's cute how you have faith in the SC to uphold the Constitution...

  • Neolith80||

    SCOTUS has disappointed us many times, but for some reason I believe they would strike down CAF. Call it a hunch.

  • notJoe||

    Call it a hunch.

    With John "PenalTax" Roberts leading the charge? Nope, I'd call it a "long shot".

  • Tionico||

    the kinyun is no longer directly holding the puppet strings. And this is not the kinyun's "baby".

    I rather think Mr. Roberts may well follow the law on this one.

  • Neolith80||

    It's almost like Justice knows that SCOTUS will hear it, and strike it down, in the not too distant future. That's why they're ramping it up now - get while the gettin's good.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    the Supreme Court and gets a 7-2 ruling against all civil asset forfeiture

    BWAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!111!!!11!!!!!!!!! Oh man, that's a good one!

  • simplybe||

    Well if they don't charge you and take you to jail they should shot just like any two bit thief. Then Sessions needs to be charged as an accomplice to murder his policies brought it on.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    ... "but Gorsuch" ...?

  • colorblindkid||

    If it goes to the court, I'm pretty sure Gorsuch would side with Clarence Thomas and disallow the practice. I'm assuming it will happen in the next few years, and it is actually Kennedy and Ginsburg who I am worried about. They gave us Kelo, afterall.

  • colorblindkid||

    Hopefully this move by Sessions only quickens the time until it goes to the court. Nobody seemed to care about it under Obama. Now people will care.

  • notJoe||

    If it goes to the court, I'm pretty sure Gorsuch would side with Clarence Thomas and disallow the practice.

    Great. That makes it 2-7.

  • paranoid android||

    If only Comrade Trump knew about these abuses, surely he'd put a stop to them!

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Every new thing I read about Jeff Sessions, every policy announcement he makes, etc. just gets worse and worse. "Christ, what and asshole" just doesn't cut it anymore. Fuck this regressive drug warrior dick-cheese. Fuck him in the ass with a rusty chainsaw.

  • Rod Flash||

    Man, you're much more worked up about this than I am. I'd use a properly lubricated and sharpened chainsaw.

  • Dillinger||

    whatthefuck dude, calm down.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Wouldn't it be easier to just have Congress attach a rider to the DoJ Appropriation Bill requiring a conviction of a person, or persons, before a civil forfeiture can be filed against any assets.

  • IceTrey||

    This asshole said "4 out of 5 siezures were not contested". Yeah because who is going to spend $10,000 to recoup $5,000?

  • Robert||

    Why not a class action?

  • Jacks61||

    What a lazy little redneck toad AG. I'm from the south and know his type.

  • SQWRLZ://cdn.panopticon.gov||

    wood chippers, special place in hell, yadda yadda.

  • tommhan||

    Appropriate? That one word is a huge loophole to do as they please. Due process means nothing to those that are supposed to respect and enforce our laws AND Constitution. SAD

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