On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department plans to “develop policies to increase forfeitures.” And today he did just that by reversing a 2015 policy then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued that prohibited local law enforcement from circumventing more restrictive state civil forfeiture laws by partnering with the feds. When signaling this policy reversal, Sessions proclaimed “no criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.” The only problem is that we are not talking about criminals.
We are talking about Americans who have had their homes, cars, money, and other property taken through civil forfeiture, a practice that requires only mere suspicion that property is connected to a crime. That’s right — people can have their property taken by the government without a criminal charge being filed, much less a conviction secured. More often than not, the police who seize the property get to keep it or sell it off and keep the proceeds, which only incentivizes the corrupt practice.
And by now, most of America knows just how loose the standards are for law enforcement seizures by the case names, like State of Texas vs. One Gold Crucifix, where the ACLU would ultimately intervene. The country also knows that the “criminals” targeted by law enforcement are innocent property owners, like ACLU client Rhonda Cox. In 2013, she had her $6,000 used pickup truck seized and permanently forfeited because her 20-year-old son made repairs to it with stolen parts unbeknownst to her.
Civil asset forfeiture is unjust and un-American.
Now don’t get me wrong, we have known this day was coming. There is a list of failed War on Drugs policies that Attorney General Sessions is working to revive one day at a time. And there is the 2015 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where Sessions said that civil forfeiture only impacts those who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” That’s patently untrue.
However, just because we anticipated this federal resuscitating of civil forfeiture does not mean that we should not be outraged. Civil forfeiture is unjust and un-American, according to 84 percent of the public. It’s also counter to bipartisan reform efforts in Congress, with Jeff Sessions has said he’s “very unhappy” with.
Attorney General Session’s action today is a big setback to the legislators in the more than 20 states that have reformed their civil forfeiture laws in recent years. Three states have eliminated civil forfeiture altogether, according to the Institute for Justice, while some now require a criminal conviction or subject civil forfeitures to a higher burden of proof. Essentially, Sessions has just provided law enforcement who do not like their state forfeiture laws with a loophole to police for profit. And when there are millions of dollars on the line, there is no incentive for law enforcement to abandon this practice on their own.
We can tell the Department of Justice don’t let cops use federal law to ignore stronger state asset forfeiture protections. But given today’s announcement by Attorney General Sessions, that call to action may fall on deaf ears. Now we must also demand that Congress pass civil asset forfeiture reforms and end policing for profit once and for all.