AG seeks ex­pan­sion of as­set for­fei­tures

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - CHRISTOPHER IN­GRA­HAM

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions on Mon­day said he’d be is­su­ing a new di­rec­tive this week aimed at in­creas­ing po­lice seizures of cash and prop­erty.

“We hope to is­sue this week a new di­rec­tive on as­set for­fei­ture — es­pe­cially for drug traf­fick­ers,” Ses­sions said in his pre­pared re­marks for a speech to the Na­tional District At­tor­neys As­so­ci­a­tion in Min­neapo­lis. “With care and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, we plan to de­velop poli­cies to in­crease for­fei­tures. No crim­i­nal should be al­lowed to keep the pro­ceeds of their crime. Adop­tive for­fei­tures are ap­pro­pri­ate as is shar­ing with our part­ners.”

As­set for­fei­ture is a con­tentious prac­tice that al­lows law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to per­ma­nently take money and goods from in­di­vid­u­als sus­pected of crime. There is lit­tle dis­agree­ment among law­mak­ers, au­thor­i­ties, and ad­vo­cates for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form that “no crim­i­nal should be al­lowed to keep the pro­ceeds of their crime.” But in many cases, nei­ther a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion nor even a crim­i­nal charge is nec­es­sary — un­der for­fei­ture laws in most states and at the fed­eral level, mere sus­pi­cion of wrong­do­ing is enough to al­low po­lice to seize items per­ma­nently.

Ad­di­tion­ally, many states al­low law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to keep cash that they seize, cre­at­ing what crit­ics char­ac­ter­ize as a profit mo­tive. The prac­tice is wide­spread: In 2014, fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cers took more prop­erty from cit­i­zens than bur­glars did. State and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties seized un­told mil­lions more.

Since 2007, the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion alone has taken over $3 bil­lion in cash from peo­ple not charged with any crime, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s In­spec­tor Gen­eral.

Crit­ics say the prac­tice is ripe for abuse. In one case in 2016, Ok­la­homa po­lice seized $53,000 owned by a Chris­tian band, an or­phan­age and a church af­ter stop­ping a man on a high­way for a bro­ken tail­light. A few years ear­lier, a Michi­gan drug task force raided the home of a self-de­scribed “soccer mom,” sus­pect­ing she was not in com­pli­ance with the state’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana law. They pro­ceeded to take “ev­ery be­long­ing” from the fam­ily, in­clud­ing tools, a bi­cy­cle, and her daugh­ter’s birth­day money.

In re­cent years, states have be­gun to clamp down on the prac­tice. “Thir­teen states now al­low for­fei­ture only in cases where there’s been a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion,” said Robert Everett John­son of the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice, a pub­lic in­ter­est law firm that rep­re­sents for­fei­ture de­fen­dants.

In 2015, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder’s Jus­tice De­part­ment is­sued a memo sharply cur­tail­ing a par­tic­u­lar type of for­fei­ture prac­tice that al­lowed lo­cal po­lice to share part of their for­fei­ture pro­ceeds with fed­eral au­thor­i­ties. Known as “adop­tive” for­fei­ture, it al­lowed state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to side­step some­times stricter state laws, pro­cess­ing for­fei­ture cases un­der the more per­mis­sive fed­eral statute.

These types of for­fei­tures amounted to a small to­tal of as­sets seized by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties, so the over­all ef­fect on for­fei­ture prac­tices was rel­a­tively muted. Still, crim­i­nal jus­tice groups on the left and the right cheered the move as a sig­nal that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was se­ri­ous about cur­tail­ing for­fei­ture abuses.

In his speech Mon­day, Ses­sions ap­peared to specif­i­cally call out adop­tive for­fei­tures as an area for po­ten­tial ex­pan­sion. “Adop­tive for­fei­tures are ap­pro­pri­ate,” he said, “as is shar­ing with our part­ners.”

“This is a fed­er­al­ism is­sue,” said the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice’s John­son. Any re­turn to fed­eral adop­tive for­fei­tures would “cir­cum­vent lim­i­ta­tions on civil for­fei­ture that are im­posed by state leg­is­la­tures … the DOJ is say­ing ‘we’re go­ing to help state and lo­cal law en­force­ment to get around those re­forms.’”

The De­part­ment of Jus­tice did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.

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