U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reinstating a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) program enabling local law enforcement agencies to circumvent state laws restricting civil asset forfeiture by laundering forfeited assets and money through a federal government fund.
On July 19, Sessions removed restrictions on DOJ’s equitable sharing program, allowing local law enforcement agencies to resume receiving the redistributed funds.
In 2015, DOJ prohibited federal agencies from “adopting” forfeited assets from local and state law enforcement agencies. The reform required federal agencies’ direct involvement in seizure actions, plus increased transparency and oversight, before takings could be deposited in the federal redistribution fund.
Sessions’ new policy undoes those reforms, allowing federal agencies to resume accepting proceeds from local police actions, without any federal involvement in the accompanying investigations.
Diane Goldstein, a former lieutenant commander with the Redondo Beach, California police department and an executive board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, says civil asset forfeiture is an un-American practice.
“When you start taking a look at the history of forfeiture or forfeiture reform, we have to go back to our Founding Fathers,” Goldstein said. “This was the very thing that we fought against when we declared our freedom from Britain. All citizens require due process.”
Sessions’ reinstatement of this form of civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional and infringes on citizens’ rights against government abuse, Goldstein says.
“I believe civil asset forfeiture is in complete violation of our Constitution,” Goldstein said. “What Jeff Sessions is doing is undermining federalism. He’s going to allow law enforcement to undermine state constitutions, state laws, and the Tenth Amendment.”
Stripping Property Rights
Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime, a joint project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the American Conservative Union Foundation, and Prison Fellowship, says civil asset forfeiture strips people of their rights to due process and favors the wealthy.
“It puts the procedural hurdles in front of a property owner, innocent or not,” Cohen said. “If somebody has means, then they’ll be able to forward their interests in the system, whether they prevail or not. If someone doesn’t have those means, they can’t even afford to mount a defense.”
High Price of Justice
Victims of civil asset forfeiture without being convicted of a crime are effectively required to pay the government to return their property, Cohen says.
“Sure, you get a hearing,” Cohen said. “But for a hearing, you need to take time off work. If you’re an hourly wage earner, that cuts into your time right there.
“I have my Ph.D. in criminology, and some of the arcane practices that are used pursuant to forfeiture, even I don’t understand,” Cohen said. “You have to get an attorney who specializes in this, which is not cheap. If we’re talking about the forfeiture of a $2,500 car that takes you $4,000 worth of time and effort to defend, did you really prevail?”