Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for the creation of a new unit in the Justice Department to oversee federal asset forfeiture policies in a memo sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod J Rosenstein yesterday.
This recent action by the attorney general comes just a few months after his announcement in July that the Department of Justice would be rolling back a series of Obama-era curbs on civil asset forfeiture.
The rollbacks announced by the attorney general earlier this year strengthened the federal government’s power to seize cash and property from citizens without first bringing criminal charges against them. The attorney general described this as a “key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed.”
The latest announcement is in large part meant to sublimate the initial rollback, which received criticism from both major parties. The new director ordered by the attorney general will, according to the memo, oversee and manage the compliance of both civil and criminal asset forfeiture and “promptly review” complaints from judges, attorneys, and other citizens and “take appropriate action.”
“The Asset Forfeiture Program is one of the most effective tools Congress has provided the Department of Justice to fight crime, combat cartels and other transnational criminal organizations and take the profit out of crime,” the attorney general said. “The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy.”
The directive also revived the Equitable Sharing Program, which allow state and local agencies to seize assets and then transfer them to federal control. The federal government then sends back 80% of the funds derived from the assets directly to the local agencies themselves, creating a loophole in state forfeiture limits and skirting some state laws saying that seized assets should go to a state’s general fund.
Opposition to the reinstated policies is one of the seemingly rare issues these days that crosses ideological lines, as groups ranging from the ACLU, the Institute for Justice, and FreedomWorks have all come out strongly against the ramping up of asset forfeiture. The common thread in all of the opposing arguments to the policy is that it violates rights of due process and is unconstitutional. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas even suggested in April, before the attorney general’s rollback of eased forfeiture regulations, that the standing forfeiture policies were unconstitutional.
According to a Washington Post investigation released in 2014, state and local police had seized over $2.5 billion from citizens without warrants or indictments for crimes. The Post also reported that there was little oversight on how the police spent the money, sometimes buying luxury vehicles, high-powered firearms, and armored cars.
The deputy attorney general is encouraging opponents of asset forfeiture not to worry about the new policy. According to the deputy attorney general, the Justice Department will ensure that there are safeguards to prevent abuse. These will including an obligation for police departments about their rights and the status of the seizures, along with documenting probable cause for the seizures.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney