In a speech Monday to the National District Attorneys Association annual conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the U.S. Justice Department plans to ramp up the use of civil asset forfeiture to “combat crime.”
If this sounds like a cliché ripped from a 1980s political speech, that’s not far off. The truth is, the DOJ new effort has less to do with fighting crime than it does with funding for law enforcement.
Sadly, what Sessions actually is doing is green-lighting escalation of DOJ and local law-enforcement efforts to seize property from people who have never been convicted of a crime, thus allowing government agencies to reap major monetary rewards. To put it another way, if the government can’t convict you of a crime, they will just take your stuff instead.
One could argue the road to asset forfeiture was paved with good intentions. The practice re-emerged at the height of the 1980s drug war, when law-enforcement agencies across the country were trying to bring down the drug trade. Civil asset forfeiture programs gave government agencies the power to seize cash, cars, guns or anything else of value that was potentially bought with drug money. Suspected drug dealers would then be forced to prove in civil court that they obtained everything legally. Once seized, the cash and other items would be used to fund both federal and local agencies’ drug war efforts, creating something of a vicious circle.
Like any power the government is granted, the practice has been expanded massively, with the end result being blatant violations of Americans’ civil rights. This country was founded on the principles of property rights and protections from unreasonable government search and seizure. Indeed, we have drifted a long way from the inalienable rights outlined in our founding documents that all men are protected under the due process of law.
Unsurprisingly, asset forfeiture has become a cash cow for the federal government and a slush fund for local law-enforcement agencies across the country. Local agencies construct their budgets based on expected seizures, which has created incentives to seize assets just to keep the lights on. All in all, civil asset forfeiture is a $5 billion “industry.” The government has so perfected the art of seizure that they now outperform actual criminals. In 2014 alone, the government seized more assets than actual burglars did.
For a while, things had been looking up. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department took some real steps toward curbing civil asset forfeiture. More importantly, many states across the country started to take a stand by passing laws to make it tougher for the government to seize assets. As of today, according to the Institute for Justice, 13 states require a criminal conviction before the government can take someone’s property. However, these state-level reforms are about to become moot thanks to the Justice Department.
Along with increased interest in asset forfeiture, Sessions and the DOJ announced Wednesday that the DOJ will also reinstate “adoptive” forfeiture, which allows state and local agencies a workaround to any potential state laws by allowing them to use a federal statue to seize property. Not only is this a direct challenge to states’ rights, it also provides incentives for local agencies to continue to pursue these actions with little regard for civil liberties.
Few think criminals should profit from their crimes. There’s also no doubt that it is challenging for state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute complex criminal enterprises like drug cartels and human traffickers. But the current system violates some of the basic principles this nation was built upon—due process of law, innocent until proven guilty and freedom—all in the pursuit of innocent people’s property.
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