DOJ expanding controversial asset seizures programs

Greg Nash

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday advised his Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-establish a criminal asset seizure program that had been curbed under pressure from lawmakers and civil liberties groups worried that the policy is ripe for abuse.

The Justice Department, with President Trump’s support, will give new authority to law enforcement agencies to seize money, contraband and property when they can prove those assets are the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity.

In an agency-wide memo, the acting chief of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, Deborah Connor, characterized the program as an essential tool in starving gang members, drug traffickers and terrorists of their means and tools.

{mosads}The proceeds, the Justice Department says, will infuse law enforcement agencies with financial resources, equipment and training in the fight against violent crime.

“Agencies and components should prioritize the adoption of assets that will advance the Attorney General’s Violent Crime Reduction Strategy,” Connor said. “The Department, through legal counsel for federal investigative agencies as well as through the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, will continue to ensure that adoptions are conducted in compliance with law and Department policies.”

But some critics, like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), worry that the policy will be abused by rogue government agents to steal from the innocent, who don’t have the means to challenge the seizures in court.

“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,” Issa said in a statement.

“Ramping up adoptive forfeitures would circumvent much of the progress state legislatures have made to curb forfeiture abuse. 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.”

The Justice Department insists that the burden of proof will be on the government, not the property owner, and says it will institute practices that go beyond what the law requires to ensure protections for the innocent.

Law enforcement officers will go through extensive legal training on the matter, the DOJ said, adding that state and local agencies will have to provide more proof than ever before that seizures are justified and U.S. attorneys will expedite cases in which the seizures are challenged. The department also noted that the bulk of seizures are of guns, ammunition and cash and that most are not challenged in court.

In a Monday speech, Sessions said the seizures would be carried out with “care and professionalism.”

At a February meeting with law enforcement leaders, Trump expressed a full-throated endorsement of the plan.

“I think Congress is going to get beat up really badly by the voters because they’ve let this happen and I think you’ll be back in shape, so asset forfeiture we’ll go back on,” Trump said. “How simple can anything be … do you even understand the other side of it?”

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