Jeff Sessions is making it easier for cops to confiscate private property

Even from citizens who haven’t been charged with a crime.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during the Justice Department’s National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during the Justice Department’s National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Police officers can now seize property from individuals who have not been charged with a crime, a policy known as asset forfeiture, even in states where asset forfeiture is banned, per a new Department of Justice (DOJ) policy announced Wednesday.

“Under the Attorney General’s Order, federal adoption of all types of assets seized lawfully by the state or local law enforcement under their respective state laws is authorized whenever the conduct giving rise to the seizure violates federal law,” Deborah Connor, acting chief of the DOJ’s money laundering and asset recovery section, wrote in a letter to U.S. attorneys Wednesday.

“Agencies and components should prioritize the adoption of assets that will advance the Attorney General’s Violent Crime Reduction Strategy,” Connor’s letter says.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the DOJ would be releasing new guidelines regarding asset forfeiture, noting that the new guidelines would be aimed at targeting drug traffickers.

“With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions said in a speech in Minneapolis. “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners.”

Adoptive forfeitures allows the federal government to “adopt” assets seized by local and state law enforcement. The policy announced Wednesday will expand the ability of the federal government to adopt assets.

Although there is little disagreement across the political spectrum about whether criminals should be allowed to “keep the proceeds of their crime,” as Sessions said, a number of federal and state laws do not require a conviction in order for police to seize a person’s assets.

For that reason, asset forfeiture consistently draws bipartisan criticism.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) released a statement Tuesday hitting Sessions’ for the proposal. “This is a troubling decision for the due process protections afforded to us under the Fourth Amendment as well as the growing consensus we’ve seen nationwide on this issue,” the statement said. “Ramping up adoptive forfeitures would circumvent much of the progress state legislatures have made to curb forfeiture abuse.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) both came out in opposition to Sessions’ proposal.

The ACLU also calls for reform of asset forfeiture policies. “[T]oday, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting,” the group’s website says. “For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

In March, the Office of the Inspector General reported that, from 2007 to 2016, the DEA seized $3.2 billion in cash from individuals who were not charged.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder instituted a policy in 2016 that the federal government could not adopt assets, except for “public safety reasons,” but the DOJ’s new policy reverses those efforts.

“This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program. Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately — providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations,” Holder said in a statement at the time. “This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”

Sessions has made extreme—if ineffective — anti-drug policies his signature as Attorney General, including by calling for bringing back the failed D.A.R.E. program.