Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new Department of Justice policy on Wednesday—plans to reinstate the use of asset forfeiture. The Department’s new policy, specifically for drug suspects—makes it easier for local law enforcement to seize cash and property from suspected criminals—but not necessarily charged or convicted of a crime, but will reap the proceeds of the seizure.
The Department’s new policy as “specified in the guidelines”—would strengthen the civil asset forfeiture program to better protect victims of crime and innocent property owners, with the goal of streamlining the process to dismantle terrorist and criminal organizations.
Sessions’ enforced the policy by eliminating an Obama administration policy, which prevented local law enforcement from circumventing state restrictions on forfeiture of civil assets. The directive was embraced as somewhat of a blueprint in the early years of the war on crime and drugs.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Justice would make it easier to engage in Civil Asset Forfeiture — a practice whereby local law enforcement agencies can seize property from those suspected of a crime, and then sell that property for a profit.
The war on drugs since its inception has since been linked to civil rights abuses: the loss of cash, homes, and cars, without verifiable proof of illegal activity; police taking cash in exchange for not locking suspects up; a legal system that makes it hard for victims to get their possessions back.
The practice has been heavily criticized because it allows law enforcement to seize possessions—such as cars and money—without indictments or evidence a crime has been committed.
“Civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement help defund organized crime, prevents new crime from committed and weakens the criminals and cartels,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Wednesday announcing the revived DOJ policy.
Sessions said these seizures help weaken criminal organizations by taking away their funding, returning the property back to victims of crime, as well as give funds back to law enforcement officials by allocating the assets toward new vehicles, vests, and police training.
“Funds being used to take lives are now being used to save lives,” said Sessions.
Two dozen states have made it difficult for authorities to seize the property from suspects without first securing criminal convictions. Three states have outlawed the practice entirely, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for reform.
Local police circumvent the laws by asking federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, to take on forfeiture cases by later sharing the proceeds. That loophole, referred to as “adoption,” helped fuel an explosion in seizures, which became a multi-billion-dollar government enterprise
Eric Holder, who led the Justice Department under President Obama, took to Twitter to share his thoughts about his successor Attorney General Jeff Sessions Monday after Sessions announced a new policy to make it easier to seize the cash and property of suspected drug traffickers.
In the tweet, Holder wrote that Sessions’ policy was “another extremist action.”
Holder was referring to a Justice Department memo he issued in 2015 that limited the practice of allowing local police to share the proceeds of seized cash and property with the federal government.
Holder’s directive, in January 2015 prohibited the adopted forfeitures, which led to a drop in seizures. Police and prosecutors, who used the money to pay for new cars, equipment, and training—and to help crime victims—frowned upon Holder’s policy. The prosecutors and police made a complaint to the Trump administration.
They found a sympathetic ear with Sessions, a former federal prosecutor and Republican Senator from Alabama who has called for a return to 1980s-era crime-fighting strategies in defiance of a bipartisan movement to ease up in favor of rehabilitation and treatment. Sessions has already reversed a Holder memo that sought to curb the use of mandatory minimum prison sentences.
The act of civil asset forfeiture has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, mainly due to circumstances where neither a criminal conviction nor a charge is necessary for police to seize cash and property. On Wednesday, Sessions struck down Holder’s directive on adopted forfeitures, adding additional restrictions aimed at protecting innocent people.
“It weakens the criminal organizations when you take their money, and it strengthens our law enforcement when we can share it together and use it to further our effort against crime,” Sessions said at a meeting with police and prosecutors in Washington.
Experts in criminal asset forfeiture said Sessions’ safeguards—increasing federal prosecutors’ scrutiny of adopted forfeitures and setting a minimum dollar amount for each—would not fix a system, which grants authorities financial incentives to pursue specific cases, even if they aren’t strong enough to prove in court.
In a Wednesday meeting with law enforcement groups, Sessions dismissed claims that civil asset forfeitures preyed on the innocent, citing research showing 4 out of 5 people with property taken from them didn’t fight or dispute the cases in court.
“They’re not challenging it because usually, this was drug money, they know it’s drug money, and they have no basis to contest the forfeitures,” Sessions said.
Although some experts agree with the statistic—they state it’s not a result of the target’s guilt; it’s because, in civil forfeitures proceedings, individuals who don’t understand the system or can’t afford attorneys find it almost impossible to fight the government.
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