Trump's Pick For Attorney General A Big Fan Of Civil Asset Forfeiture
from the status-quo-maintenance dept
Efforts to rein in civil forfeiture have been moving forward around the country. Several states have passed laws that remove some of the perverse incentives that have allowed law enforcement agencies to seize cash, cars, homes, and whatever else might be laying around without criminal convictions. Very few efforts have gone as far as to make convictions a requirement in every case, but most have at least closed the federal loophole that allowed agencies to bypass more restrictive state laws to take control of citizens’ assets.
The federal government’s use of asset forfeiture still remains untouched. The equitable sharing program that helped local law enforcement agencies skirt state regulations closed briefly due to budget cutbacks, but was revived once the tax dollars started flowing again.
While some legislators have mounted efforts to scale back federal civil asset forfeiture, nothing has made its way to the president’s desk. There’s a new president on the way and his choice for attorney general isn’t going to help those efforts along. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is a longtime fan of asset forfeiture and still believes — despite years of evidence to the contrary — that it’s an effective Drug War weapon, rather than law enforcement agencies going shopping for things they want.
At a 2015 Senate Judiciary Hearing, Sessions had this to say about federal adoption of local forfeitures, as well as forfeiture in general.
[Sessions] said he doesn’t “think it’s wrong to—for federal government to adopt state cases” and added that “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.”
Mr. Sessions said he was “very unhappy” with criticism of a program that mostly took money from people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
It’s difficult to square Sessions’ “done nothing but sell dope” view on forfeiture with the more common reality: assets seized from people who’ve “done nothing in their lives” but never “sell dope.”
For Christos and Markela Sourovelis, for whom the worst thing was losing their home, “Room 101” was Courtroom 478 in City Hall. This “courtroom’s” name is Orwellian: There was neither judge nor jury in it. There the city government enriched itself — more than $64 million in a recent 11-year span — by disregarding due process requirements in order to seize and sell the property of people who have not been accused, never mind convicted, of a crime.
The Sourovelises’ son, who lived at home, was arrested for selling a small amount of drugs away from home. Soon there was a knock on their door by police who said, “We’re here to take your house” and “You’re going to be living on the street” and “We do this every day.” The Sourovelises’ doors were locked with screws, and their utilities were cut off. They had paid off the mortgage on their $350,000 home, making it a tempting target for policing for profit.
Sessions doesn’t care for this program being criticized, despite no law enforcement agency being able to offer up evidence backing his claim that “95%” of forfeitures are linked to drug dealing. Why? Because these agencies don’t have that proof. They’re not required to. Civil asset forfeiture circumvents the adversarial part of the judicial process almost entirely.
The few cases we do hear about are those that involve amounts worth fighting for. The process is expensive, labyrinthine, and stacked against the former owners of the seized assets. All most agencies have to do is make a few hunch-backed assertions about drug dealers and their tendency to use cash for transactions and their ability to purchase assets with obtained cash. Because convictions aren’t an integral part of the process, no investigations are started and no efforts made to ensure the seized assets are the direct result of criminal activity.
Sessions as attorney general won’t be able to do much about state laws that prevent law enforcement from partnering with the federal government to route around local statutes, but he will be able to stand in the way of reform efforts targeting federal civil asset forfeiture. As long as he’s in charge, agencies under his control will continue to abuse an inherently-abusable process to separate people like the Sourovelis family from their property.