Jeff Sessions Expands Controversial Civil Asset Forfeiture Program

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Aug 28, 2017

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SheriffAttorney General Jeff Sessions has announced plans for the Department of Justice to reignite its support for the controversial, and widely criticized, practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Sessions, a vocal and persistent tough on crime advocate, raised eyebrows across the political spectrum by stating the DOJ would jump start the practice which was significantly cut back by President Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder.  The details of Sessions’ civil asset forfeiture plan are unclear, but citizens and politicians from both parties will be watching implementation closely, and with a critical eye.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Designed to eliminate profit from criminal conduct, civil asset forfeiture is a policy which allows the government to confiscate private property which investigators suspect is connected to the commission of a crime.  Under civil asset forfeiture policy, if a person is suspected of committing a crime the police may lawfully seize that person’s property and sell it for departmental profit, challenging even if the suspect never actually is convicted of a crime.  Although suspects whose property is seized may file a claim to recover it if they are not convicted, the process to do so is typically confusing, difficult, and so muddled with legal hurdles that most efforts fail.

The practice is as old as American law itself, but has seen a massive uptick in use since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 when the federal government expanded civil asset forfeiture by allowing federal, state, and local agencies the opportunity to profit from proceeds of the sales of seized property through equitable sharing.  Under the federal Equitable Sharing program, state and local police can seize property from a suspect, turn it over to the federal government, and then receive 80% of the property’s sale value after its sale.  The federal government keeps the other 20%, and both federal agencies and local law enforcement departments have profited to the tune of close to $3 billion in warrantless seizures since 2001.

Most states have also expanded civil asset forfeiture laws by making the process of reclaiming seized property difficult to the level of near impossibility, and allowing police departments to reap substantial profits from sold property which can then be used to pay for police equipment or fund raises and bonus pay.  The practice was not favored by the Obama administration, and former Attorney General Eric Holder cut back on equitable sharing in 2015 in an effort to reduce the prevalence of civil asset forfeiture.

Jeff Sessions Announces Expansion of Equitable Sharing

Following AG Holder’s efforts to crack down on civil asset forfeiture, a handful of states followed suit and reduced the financial incentives by limiting how much money police departments could receive from the practice.  Police departments have responded to the attack on civil asset forfeiture negatively, with many law enforcement officials accusing reforms of being “anti-cop” and making the job of police more difficult.  Police organizations point to the original purpose of civil asset forfeiture — to crack down on drug trafficking — as a critical goal of law enforcement and argue that restricting officers’ ability to seize suspected criminal proceeds allows for the trade of illicit substances to thrive unhindered.  Police departments have also developed a reliance on civil asset forfeiture, as some federal, state, and local drug task forces or agencies receive at least 20% of their annual budget from the practice.

Attorney General Sessions, who is a staunch supporter of the War on Drugs and aggressive policing, recently announced he would not only peel back DOJ reforms under Obama, but also provide state and local policing agencies with a loophole to avoid any state laws which restrict civil asset forfeiture.  Under Sessions’ new plan, equitable sharing would be restored to its 80% return for state and local police departments, and allow those departments to side-step state reforms by going directly through the federal government to earn financial incentives for seizing property from citizens suspected of a crime.  In an official DOJ statement, Sessions noted that his mission was to restrict the ability of criminals to profit from their activity, and, in a response to common criticisms of civil asset forfeiture, assured that police departments would be trained and monitored to ensure the practice was used responsibly.

Sessions’ Civil Asset Forfeiture Plan Draws Criticism

Despite arguments from police departments regarding the necessity and integrity of civil asset forfeiture, it is wildly unpopular on both sides of the political aisle.  Nearly 84% of Americans are against the policy, with Republicans and Democrats criticizing it as a means for police to take money from citizens who are never convicted of a crime.  In fact, close to 87% of federal asset forfeiture cases do not require conviction, and recent awareness campaigns by TV personalities and politicians has turned the public against the process. 

Whether the training and oversight promised by Sessions improves police use, and public perception of civil asset forfeiture remains to be seen.  For now, the DOJ’s unilateral decision to expand equitable sharing and reignite civil asset forfeiture will carry on regardless of criticism, providing police across the country with financial incentive to seize citizen property without a warrant or arrest.

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