Just a few words demonstrate how retrograde US attorney-general Jeff Sessions’ view of criminal justice can be.
“We hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture—especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions told an audience of local prosecutors. “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.”
Civil asset forfeiture is the practice by which law-enforcement agencies can seize property from suspected criminals without a court proceeding. In theory, it is designed to stop criminals using ill-gotten gains to commit further crimes; the authorities can seize cash or vehicles and challenge criminal suspects to prove they were legally obtained.
In practice, in part because police departments often fund themselves from the valuables they seize, the tool has become a source of abuse, “routinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings of innocent people who are never charged with a crime,” as one New Yorker investigation (paywall) put it. There is little oversight or avenue of appeal for people whose assets are taken.
And we aren’t talking about small amounts of money; estimates range to as much as a $1 billion dollars annually. The Drug Enforcement Administration alone has taken $3.2 billion from people (paywall) not charged with a crime over the last decade, for example. The Washington Post’s Chris Ingraham reported (paywall) that more assets were seized by police than stolen by burglars in all of 2014.
The Center for American Progress, once seen as a Clinton administration in exile, notes that most seizures are in low-income neighborhoods, which “exacerbates the economic struggles that already plague those communities.”
But it’s not just liberal voices who fret about the consequences of this policy. Conservatives don’t like it, either, seeing it as government run amok. The conservative Institute for Justice calls it “one of the greatest threats to private property and due process in our nation today.” Civil asset forfeiture has distorted the incentives of police, writes the Heritage Foundation’s John Malcom, saying it leads some officers to “focus more on getting money and property and less on catching criminals—behavior that some have referred to as a form of legalized bounty hunting.”
In fact, criminal-justice reformers have seen the fight against civil asset forfeiture as a rare place of bipartisan unity. The Charles Koch Institute trumpets research that shows opposition to the practice unites both Trump and Clinton voters.
Despite this apparent consensus, Sessions has long opposed reforming civil asset forfeiture. At a 2015 hearing, he said that “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong,” claiming that “95 percent” of seizures involved people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” Sessions has gone out of his way to revert to tough-on-crime rhetoric of questionable efficacy during his short term in office, including pushing for harsher sentences on low-level offenders.
The one group that does applaud civil asset forfeiture is police unions, whose national leader suggested that concerns about it were “fake news” in an op-ed last year. Police officers, not surprisingly, are eager to protect the stream of revenue that funds their operations and their salaries.
Sessions also hinted that he would reinstate a rule allowing federal agencies to “adopt” forfeited goods seized by local police forces. This practice allowed police to bypass state laws restricting seizures; it was ended under the previous administration. Today, Sessions said that “adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners,” a fairly clear signal that this restraint will be removed.