Ses­sions looks to crack down on traf­fick­ers’ cash

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - NATION & WORLD - By 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 a speech to the Na­tional District At­tor­ney’s 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.”

As­set for­fei­ture is a highly con­tro­ver­sial 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 crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form­ers 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 agen­cies 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 DEA alone has taken over $3 bil­lion in cash from peo­ple not charged with any crime, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s In­spec­tor Gen­eral.

The prac­tice is ripe for abuse. 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 self­de­scribed “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, 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 im­pact on for­fei­ture prac­tices was rel­a­tively muted. Still, crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form groups on the left and the right cheered the move as a sig­nal that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was se­ri­ous about cur­tail­ing for­fei­ture abuses.

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