Conservatives are trashing Jeff Sessions’ controversial asset-seizure program

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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
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REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Republican lawmakers are up in arms over a new Justice Department directive allowing the federal government to take assets that were lawfully seized by local or state law enforcement officials.

Critics challenged the constitutionality of the program and alleged it encourages law enforcement agencies to seize property from individuals who were merely suspected of criminal activity and not formally charged with a crime, violating due process.

“Instead of revising forfeiture practices in a manner to better protect Americans’ due process rights, the DOJ seems determined to lose in court before it changes its policies for the better,” said Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

“The Fifth Amendment protects us from the government depriving us of our property without due process of law,” read a statement from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “I oppose the government overstepping its boundaries by assuming a suspect’s guilt and seizing their property before they even have their day in court.”

“Civil asset forfeiture is unjust and unconstitutional,” tweeted Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. “It’s a big-government scheme to take people’s property without due process. End it.”

“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,” Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California said in a statement. “Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime, but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen.”

Announced on Wednesday, the civil-asset forfeiture directive allows local law-enforcement to avoid state regulations that places limits on forfeitures. By allowing the federal government to acquire the seized assets, the state or local agency may be eligible to receive up to 80% of the proceeds, bypassing state laws that require the assets to be deposited into general funds for the state. The remaining 20% of the funds would be kept by the federal government.

The Justice Department’s inspector general found that civil-asset forfeitures took in nearly $28 billion in the last decade. In 2007, the DEA reportedly seized around $4.15 billion in cash alone. Additionally, The Washington Post reported that in 2015, seizures out-earned the losses from burglaries in the US.

However, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that the goal of the directive was to target assets stemming from criminal activity and “seizing the proceeds of crime.”

“It’s not about taking assets from innocent people,” Rosenstein said, according to The Washington Examiner. “It’s about taking assets that are the proceeds of […] criminal activity, primarily drug dealing.”

“Sometimes there will be criminal prosecutions, sometimes there won’t,” Rosenstein said.

Although the policy is a reversal of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s restriction during President Obama’s tenure, the memo does enact several safeguards to address some concerns. According to the memo, law-enforcement agencies must “provide additional information about the probable cause determination justifying the seizure.”

State and local agencies would also be required to request their federal “adoption” of seized property within 15 days after being taken, and the federal agency must notify property owners within 45 days of seizure.

President Donald Trump has previously expressed opposition to weakening the program, after hearing from several sheriffs who complained that they faced pressure in February.

“I’d like to look into that,” Trump said. “There’s no reason for that.”