In January 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines when he issued a directive stating, “Federal adoption of property seized by state or local law enforcement under state law is prohibited, except for property that directly relates to public safety concerns, including ﬁrearms, ammunition, explosives, and property associated with child pornography,” which represent a small percentage of the seizures made under the federal program of civil asset forfeiture.
On July 19, 2017 that directive was rescinded by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who issued Order 3946-2017 stating, “Federal forfeiture of property seized lawfully by state and local law enforcement agencies is authorized whenever the conduct giving rise to the seizure is in violation of federal law.” Adding that, “Asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools to reduce crime and its use should be encouraged where appropriate.”
Civil asset forfeiture is mostly used to fight the War on Drugs, and unlike criminal asset forfeiture which requires a conviction before assets can be seized, civil asset forfeiture only requires allegation of the seized assets being connected to criminal activity.
The Sessions memo adds, “This order… makes another tool available to our state and local partners.” This additional tool, police will argue, is needed because 24 states have passed laws limiting the practice, according to CBS News, this new policy reversing the Obama-era prohibition allows “local law enforcement [to] get around those restrictions by giving seized assets to the federal government instead of returning them to their owners.”
Business Insider reports, “[b]y 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.”
This does nothing more than give state and local police an incentive to ramp up the War on Drugs in order to increase funding to their departments without requiring a criminal conviction. “Not only are most [state and local] civil forfeitures [and all federal civil forfeitures] subject to a standard of proof lower than that required for criminal guilt,” as reported by the Institute for Justice, “but in most states, property owners are effectively guilty until proven innocent.” Because owners of seized property are effectively required to prove the property was not connected to any illegal activity, and in many cases it costs more to fight the forfeiture than the value of the seized items.
This roll-back of Holder’s directive will only serve to further expand the failing War on Drugs, and civil asset forfeiture is nothing more than legal plunder by another name!