U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced another reversal of Obama-era criminal justice reform, against a tide of bipartisan opposition. He announced this week that he intends to increase the use of the controversial process of civil forfeiture in federal criminal cases. Moreover, he plans to reintroduce the secondary seizure by federal officials of assets seized by local police forces.
Civil forfeiture is a process meant to deal a crippling financial blow to criminals and criminal enterprises. In civil forfeiture, law enforcement agents can seize essentially any cash and property they determine to be involved in, or the result of, criminal activity. Then, unless the accused can prove to a court that the property is “innocent,” the law enforcement agency gets to keep it.
One thing that makes civil forfeiture so controversial is that the seizure takes place before trial. The accused person hasn’t been convicted of any crime, but the assets can still be seized. This can make it extremely difficult for the accused to afford an effective defense.
Another aspect of the process that raises eyebrows is the fact that law enforcement agencies keep the seized assets for themselves rather than, say, donating them to a charity or victim impact fund. Even more troubling, in 2014 the New York Times reported on police training seminar videos that encouraged police departments to make an effort to seize specific, valuable items like luxury cars and flat screen televisions.
Both conservatives and liberals say allowing federal agencies and police departments to pad their budgets with seized assets gives them incentives to abuse the practice. Further, a bipartisan group of critics has charged that it is far too difficult for people to recover their property, and that innocent people often get caught up in the civil forfeiture net.
Nevertheless Sessions, in a speech before the National District Attorneys Association, said he would soon issue a policy directive increasing the use of the process. “With care and professionalism we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” he told the group of prosecutors.
Sessions to increase federal taking of local seizures
In that same speech, Sessions made clear that he meant to increase so-called “adoptive forfeitures,” as well. This is a practice that allows the federal government to take property from the local law enforcement agencies that originally seized it.
In 2015, Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder issued a policy memo limiting asset forfeiture by the federal government and prohibiting adoptive forfeitures. After Sessions’ announcement, Holder Tweeted that the most recent policy reversal was “another extremist action.”