Convicted Or Not, Jeff Sessions Wants Police To Seize People’s Assets

"This is a step in the wrong direction and I urge the Department of Justice to reconsider," said Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to increase the use of “civil asset forfeiture” in an attempt to curb drug trafficking.

But whether this would be useful is the real question here.

Just for the context, let’s first establish what asset forfeiture actually means.  The directive gained popularity in the 1980s in the war on drugs as a way to disrupt operations of drug cartels, so that the criminals don’t profit off of their wrongdoing.

However, the civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize money and property from people who are simply suspected of crimes — they don't need to have been convicted or even charged with one.

Many states in the U.S. allow police officers to take away things from people and keep them, even if they are not convicted of a crime.

Sadly, all of this is legal.

Police can seize the value of the property, an alleged criminal's cash, cars, guns or something else as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as equitable sharing.

The program lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they confiscate as money for their departments. For police departments, this can end up in a reasonably profitable scheme.

Sessions now wants to increase this practice. He said he wants to issue a new directive, including a form called adoptive forfeiture, where law enforcement agencies let the federal government step in when state law restricts it.

"We hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture — especially for drug traffickers," Sessions said, speaking to the National District Attorneys Association conference in Minneapolis.

"With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” he added. “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners."

However, police officials have reportedly abused the asset penalty.  According to a recent report from the inspector general at the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration alone seized more than $3.2 billion in assets from 2007 to 2016.

Several critics have called for a reform after arguing the civil asset forfeiture is used by police for their own profits. While people whose things get seized can get their property back, there are still many assets that can’t be recovered. Also the alleged convict has to pay for all the court challenges from their own pockets.

Washington Post reporters Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow and Steven Rich uncovered several instances where people were stopped and arrested while driving with cash and had their money taken despite little, or at times, no proof of a crime. The suspects in these alleged cases were only able to get their property back after lengthy, costly court battles where it was proven they weren’t in fact guilty of anything.

But Sessions, who thinks marijuana users and heroin addicts are basically the same, apparently wants police to keep benefiting from this situation, as opposed to several Republicans and Democrats. Even former President Barack Obama’s administration attempted to limit the use of civil forfeiture following reports of its frequent abuse, but his move was not appreciated.

"This is a step in the wrong direction and I urge the Department of Justice to reconsider," said Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Sessions’ directive. "I am a huge supporter of criminal asset forfeiture — the seizure of property after the conviction of crime—but with civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement has a direct economic incentive to take people’s property without ever even charging them with a crime. We need to add more due process to forfeiture proceedings. Expanding forfeiture without increasing protections is, in my view, unconstitutional and wrong."







Banner/Thumbnail Credit: Reuters, P. Bernstein

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