The Department of Justice announced new policies on Wednesday that would ease government restrictions on “civil asset forfeiture” rules, allowing police increased authority to take property and money from you without having to prove you are definitely guilty of a crime—even if the state you live in has rules against such practices.
As our colleagues at The Root explained yesterday:
This “asset forfeiture” is a widely disputed practice that allows officials to take cash, cars, homes and whatever else you may have—even if you are merely suspected of a crime, even if you are not a drug trafficker.
In many cases, neither a criminal conviction nor even a criminal charge is necessary, and it takes a shit ton of money and years of litigation to try to get back what was taken.
Then, the police can “absorb” the value of the property taken, Vox explained.
The new DOJ policy and guidance “largely reverses a decision by the Obama administration in 2015 to halt most so-called adoptive forfeitures,” BuzzFeed News reported.
Under the Obama administration and former Attorney General Eric Holder, such forfeitures were prohibited—as opposed to being encouraged, as they are now—“except where needed to protect public safety,” according to a 2015 DOJ press release.
In remarks made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and quoted in the DOJ press release announcing the policy change, Sessions told law enforcement officials that “civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels.”
The DOJ’s new directive includes a number of supposed safeguards, like requiring local officials to show probable cause, and limits on seizures less than $10,000. In those cases, the DOJ is requiring either a warrant, an arrest, related contraband, an admission of the criminal nature of the property, or approval from the Attorney General’s office.
But these forfeitures are still controversial. Police can “absorb the value of the property” seized, so these forfeitures can also be quite profitable for police departments, Vox explained.
A Office of the Inspector General report from earlier this year (before the new policy) showed that the Drug Enforcement Administration—which the OIG said is responsible for 80% of the DOJ’s cash seizures in the 10-year period between 2007 and 2016—obtained forfeitures of over $3.2 billion.
During a briefing about the new policy, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein addressed the concern that “the program provided ‘perverse’ profit incentives to state and local law enforcement to seek out cash and property to seize,” BuzzFeed reports.
He said that the underlying motivation of the program was to reduce crime, and if some resource were funneled back into law enforcement for legitimate purposes, that was appropriate.
“There is going to be scrutiny to make sure that every forfeiture that is adopted by the federal government complies with the Constitution, and particularly with the Fourth Amendment,” Rosenstein told reporters.
While the OIG said that asset seizure and forfeiture provide “considerate benefits to law enforcement,” the report also concluded that “asset seizure and forfeiture also present unique potential risks to civil liberties.”
You can read the whole DOJ announcement for yourself here.