(Emily Larsen, Liberty Headlines) Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he would create a new position for the purpose of reviewing compliance and efficiency in the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture program.
The new position – Director of Asset Forfeiture Accountability – comes following criticism from conservatives over Sessions’s support for the law enforcement practice.
Asset forfeiture occurs when a criminal has been convicted of a crime, and police seize illegal or stolen cash and property. But, more controversially, police can also seize civil assets, which doesn’t require a conviction, a warrant, or even a criminal charge.
“[A]sset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels,” said Sessions in a press release.
But critics of the practice sat that it is unconstitutional, and violates property rights.
The two-tiered system makes it easy for police to abuse asset forfeiture. Just last week, The Intercept reported an internal civil asset forfeiture handbook from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations which instructs agents how to maximize the value of seized assets. It also notes that civil seizures are essential to maximizing profit, and there “may be third party interest that would prevail in a criminal case, but would not survive in a civil proceeding, making the civil proceeding essential to forfeiture.”
Federal and local police agencies across the country seized more than $3 billion worth of cash and property under the program, according to the Washington Post. State and local police share the proceeds from the seizures with federal agencies.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder stopped the program two years ago, but Sessions reinstated it this summer, to the disappointment of conservatives.
“Instead of revising forfeiture practices in a manner to better protect Americans’ due process rights, the DOJ seems determined to lose in court before it changes its policies for the better,” said Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) in a statement when Sessions reinstituted the practice.
Conservative and libertarian organizations have come out against the practice also. The liberal ACLU and NAACP also oppose civil asset forfeiture.
The Institute for Justice (IJ), a conservative non-profit law firm, notes that criminal convictions followed only 13 percent of asset forfeitures. In 2016, IJ launched lawsuits challenging civil asset forfeiture in Arizona, California, Indiana, and New Mexico.
The conservative Heritage Foundation calls civil asset forfeiture a program with good intentions gone awry.
“[T]he procedures used to effectuate a civil forfeiture are skewed against innocent property owners whose property may have been misused by others to engage in criminal activity…Some law enforcement authorities 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,” said the Heritage Foundation in a 2015 report on civil asset forfeiture.
Sessions’s move to improve civil asset forfeiture accountability could be a response to the criticisms from conservatives.
“I make this decision today because I believe it is important to have senior-level accountability in the Department of the day-to-day workings of the asset forfeiture program, as well as authority to coordinate with relevant components to make the necessary changes to the program to ensure it continues to operate in an accountable and responsible way,” Sessions said on Tuesday.
Whoever fills the position will “ensure compliance, review complaints, and advance the integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness of the program.” The director will make recommendations on restructuring the program, streamline operations, and impose controls on how program funds can be used.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who opposes civil asset forfeiture, says Sessions’s step toward civil asset forfeiture accountability doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s nice to see at least some acknowledgment that civil forfeiture is in need of increased oversight, but the changes really don’t go far enough and the core problem still remains,” said Issa in a statement to the Washington Post. “Americans are still going to have their property taken from them, without due process, at record rates.”
The House passed three amendments to limit civil asset forfeiture in September, with no member speaking in opposition. The measures are yet to be heard by the Senate.