UNPOPULAR OPINION

Rare bipartisan agreement: Jeff Sessions’ latest anti-crime measure is an overreach of federal power

Attorney general Jeff Sessions in March.
Attorney general Jeff Sessions in March.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Today the Justice Department announced plans to scale back restrictions on civil-asset forfeiture, a practice which essentially permits law enforcement to seize property from citizens on mere suspicion of connection to criminal activity.

Its a wildly unpopular practice, with even conservative commentators decrying its clear conflicts with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, which guard against the arbitrary denial of property rights by the government outside proper legal channels. A particularly egregious example was the 2015 seizure of $16,000 in cash from a 22-year-old black man by Drug Enforcement Administration officials, based on an evidence-less suspicion that the money was sourced from drug dealing. Similarly, a Philadelphia-area couple had their house seized by local law enforcement in 2014 on suspicion that their son may have been involved in the drug trade. Neither were ever even charged with a crime–still, officers were able to bar the family from their home.

“We need to send a clear message that crime does not pay,” US attorney general Jeff Sessions explained at a Justice Department event earlier today. “With this new policy, the American people can be confident knowing we are following the law and taking action to defund criminals, while at the same time protecting the rights of American citizens.”

A 2013 story published in The New Yorker highlighted just how easily civil forfeiture can be weaponized against the American citizens Sessions claims to be protecting. “Over the past year, I spoke with more than a hundred police officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and forfeiture plaintiffs from across the country,” staff writer Sarah Stillman wrote. “Many expressed concern that state laws designed to go after high-flying crime lords are routinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings of innocent people who are never charged with a crime.” Abuse is only exacerbated by the fact that assets seized under civil forfeiture can be used to fund local police departments.

Today’s announcement is particularly troubling, as it indicates the Justice Department’s intent to steamroll state laws to further its reactionary criminal-justice policies. CBS News reports that 24 states have passed laws that restrict or prohibit civil forfeiture, but that local law enforcement can now circumvent these laws by relinquishing seized assets to the federal government, instead of returning them to owners—even those who have never been charged with a crime. Known as “adoption,” this strategy has allowed the federal government to take more than $1 billion in assets over the last 10 years.

Rolling back Obama-era protections against the practice is a strange place for the Trump administration to plant a flag. A number of prominent Republicans have voiced opposition to the move in recent hours, including California congressman Darrell Issa and Idaho senator Mike Crapo:

The Institute for Justice, a high-profile libertarian public-interest law firm, has pointed out that both the Republican and Democratic party platforms are steeply opposed the practice. “Today’s announcement is a disheartening setback in the fight to protect Americans’ private property rights,” IJ attorney Dharpana Sheth said in a statement. “Ordinary Americans see that civil forfeiture is unconstitutional, and 24 states have taken steps to roll back civil forfeiture laws. The Attorney General’s plan to increase forfeitures is jarringly out of step with those positive developments.”