Via WSJ’s Editorial Board
In today’s polarized Washington, Jeff Sessions has managed the feat of uniting folks on the left and right. We’re referring to the Attorney General’s decision this week to revive an asset forfeiture program whose overreach proved too much even for the Obama Administration.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement officers to seize property such as homes and cars and cash thought to be paid for or generated by criminal activity. In 2015 then Attorney General Eric Holder restricted the practice. But before an audience of law-enforcement officials on Wednesday, Mr. Sessions revived it as a “key tool” to “hit organized crime in the wallet.” That’s the theory. But it has many problems.
The first is that taking property from citizens who have been convicted of no crime is constitutionally dubious. Mr. Sessions is also reviving a program that allows local law enforcement to seize these assets in conjunction with the feds. This lets them evade the laws in 14 states that bar asset forfeiture absent a criminal conviction. The feds and local cops share the spoils, an obvious incentive for abuse.
Mr. Sessions says he’s added new safeguards to prevent abuse. But Robert Johnson, an Institute for Justice lawyer who specializes in property rights, points out that these mostly come down to “a pledge to be more careful.” For example, Justice says it will now require a “form that state and local law enforcement must fill out,” which will then be reviewed by the department’s lawyers. This is due process?
It’s not even clear this program helps actual law enforcement. In March the Justice Department Inspector General released a report on cash seizures and forfeiture. It focused in particular on the Drug Enforcement Agency, which accounted for 80% of Justice’s cash seizures from 2007 to 2016.
The IG found a fundamental problem. Because Justice has no “seizure-specific metrics” to evaluate how these seizures and forfeitures relate to criminal investigations, no one knows. In a sample of 100 cash seizures, the DEA could verify only 44 that “advanced or were related to criminal investigations.”
In the past decade forfeitures under Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Program have reached $28 billion. We all know what it’s like to be ticketed by a police officer who is doing so as part of a quota designed to raise revenue. But what happens when you give the cop the right to take the car too? This dangerous practice cries out for a slap from the Supreme Court or an override by Congress that for once seems to have bipartisan agreement.