Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed an order Wednesday that would roll back reforms designed to limit the federal government’s participation in civil asset forfeiture – a process by which police can seize money, vehicles, and property from citizens without charging them or convicting them of a crime. Once upon a time, local law enforcement could skirt the private property protections passed by state lawmakers by handing forfeiture cases to federal agents through a process known as federal equitable sharing, until 2015, when key parts of the program were rolled back. Now, thanks to Attorney General Sessions, civil asset forfeiture is back with a vengeance.
Nationwide, public opinion stands decisively opposed to civil asset forfeiture, with more than eight in ten Americans – and U.S. Hispanics – against the practice. As a result, both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms condemn forfeiture and call for repeal. Meanwhile, 24 states have passed considerable reforms to civil asset forfeiture. However, by revamping federal equitable sharing, the Justice Department has made itself the willing accomplice of any state or local police department that finds the private property protections passed by their state’s elected representatives inconvenient. Instead of following the laws passed by their fellow citizens, those who have abused civil asset forfeiture now have an excuse to continue business as usual.
According to the Institute for Justice, the protections put in place by the new order are scarcely more than window dressing:
“The supposed “safeguards” implemented by this policy directive offer little or no substantive protection to property owners as they depend primarily on self-policing rather than judicial oversight. Most amount to nothing more than a pledge to be more careful. For example, under this new policy, the Justice Department will continue to seek forfeiture of homes where the owner is not implicated in illegal activity, with the only “safeguard” being that the Department officials should proceed with particular caution. That offers no actual protection for innocent homeowners.”
That characterization is spot on.
These cheap concessions will only provide cover for defenders of civil asset forfeiture to continue violating the property rights of innocent Latino citizens while pretending they’re doing something to address the problem.
Critical reforms are needed to fix forfeiture at the federal as well as state level. Instead of allowing police departments to keep the proceeds of forfeitures, the money should go to the state’s general fund, so that individual departments no longer have an incentive to seize property for no good reason. When police do seize property, they should be required to supply a receipt indicating the items forfeited and their value. Most importantly, it is worth examining whether we should abandon civil asset forfeiture entirely. Switching to a system of criminal asset forfeiture – where the owner must be convicted of a crime before the goods can be taken – would be an enormous step in the right direction. Any one of these reforms would be a significant improvement on the current system of seizure without charges, convictions, or repercussions for those involved.