Civil Asset Forfeiture has new life under Attorney General Jeff Sessions his Department of Justice. Sessions has reinstated the policy after the Obama-era Justice Department, led by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, limited its uses for law enforcement officials in 2015.
Civil Asset Forfeiture allows law enforcement officials, such as the local police officers and sheriff’s deputies that all Americans are familiar with, to seize the money and property of a suspect if an official believes that the money or property may be used in the act of a crime, or to further a criminal deed. It was introduced in the 1980s as a method of drug interdiction, namely by dismantling the financing infrastructure of the drug trade.
Many legal scholars find Civil Asset Forfeiture to violate the due process of law, protected by the Fifth Amendment, which ensures that an individual suspected of a crime is treated fairly and that his rights are respected. Traditionally, due process guarantees that an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty and must be proven guilty by a judge or jury in order to have his rights and liberties infringed upon.
Civil Asset Forfeiture allows police department to declare a suspect’s property or money to be guilty of a crime and to seize it without a court order or warrant. In some cases, the person is never charged with a crime, yet his property is still seized and may never be released. While this policy may have a tangible effect on drug trafficking and a decline in its profits, it comes at a cost for many law-abiding Americans.
Another controversial aspect of the policy is that it allows for local law enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the seized assets. Critics believe that this creates a perverse profit incentive for police and sheriff’s departments across the country. In some cases, the law enforcement agency is able to keep 80 percent of the seized money; all seized assets need to be submitted to the Justice Department, but much of these funds are eventually remitted to the coordinating law enforcement agency. In 2013, law enforcement seized over four billion dollars nationally. According to Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post, law enforcement officials seized more assets than burglars did in 2014, in terms of dollar value.
Supporters of Civil Asset Forfeiture believe that it equips law enforcement agencies with necessary training and equipment and fills budgetary needs, while simultaneously seizing illicit funds and disrupting illegal activity, all while not having to raise taxes on law-abiding citizens. In the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 fiscal years, Guildford County Sheriff’s Department spent 1.8 million dollars of forfeiture funds. In a 2016 interview with the Greensboro News & Record, Sheriff BJ Barnes said that his Department procured budgetary necessities with forfeiture funds “so the taxpayers have not had to pay for them.” This argument is attractive for many cash-strapped local governments and their police departments, as it can provide vital funds without the pain of tax increases. The unknown variable in this equation is how much of the total forfeiture funds were seized from innocent Americans.
Sessions has long been a support of Civil Asset forfeiture as a senator from Alabama. Many political analysts believe that the reinstatement of this program was a when-not-if situation.
For the next four years, law enforcement will have increased access to forfeiture funds and the support of the Justice Department.