Bipartisan Pair Asks Sessions to Stop Asset Forfeiture Expansion

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the National Association of Attorneys General annual winter meeting Feb. 28, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON – Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) last week asked that Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdraw his proposal to expand the agency’s controversial civil asset forfeiture program.

The program allows police to seize property or assets – including cars, homes and bank accounts — from individuals suspected of crime or illegal activity without requiring arrests or charges. Opponents and civil liberties groups have attacked the practice, saying it places an unfair burden on the individual trying to retrieve assets and encourages law enforcement corruption. Sessions called for expansion of the program in July, when he issued new guidance.

Under Obama, the Justice Department in January 2015 implemented measures that limited the agency’s adoptive forfeitures. Sessions, in his vow to reverse that decision, has cited a need for “safeguards.”

Sensenbrenner and Conyers in an Aug. 4 letter to Sessions pointed out that his policy directive calls for “particular caution” when law enforcement is seeking home forfeiture if the individuals were “not implicated in criminal conduct.” This detail, the lawmakers said, shows how “stunningly inappropriate and brazen” it is for DOJ to engage in asset forfeiture.

“That officials charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of our citizens would contemplate taking personal residences of innocent homeowners underscores our lack of faith in the discretion to be exercised by Department officials in the prior three ‘safeguards,’” the lawmakers wrote, referring to Sessions’ new guidance.

Sensenbrenner and Conyers note that the practice has been criticized as a “bounty” system, in which state and local agencies can collect about 80 percent of “forfeiture proceeds for simply transferring seized property to federal authorities to pursue forfeiture under federal law.”

The policy directive, issued by the Justice Department Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, includes limitations on property seizures of $10,000 or less, a detail the lawmakers lambasted. The discrepancy, the letter read, signifies that “higher-dollar cases are somehow less deserving of protections against abuse.”

“I am a supporter of criminal asset forfeiture – the seizure of property after the conviction of crime – but with civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement has a direct economic incentive to take people’s property without ever even charging them with a crime,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “We need to add more due process to forfeiture proceedings.”

Conyers said that Sessions’ proposal to expand the program goes against the bipartisan effort to reform asset forfeiture practices. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Angus King (I-Maine) penned a letter in late May calling for the DOJ to dramatically “pare down” abuse of the practice.

Melissa Hamilton, a former Florida police officer who now lectures at the University of Surrey, said Monday that Conyers’ and Sensenbrenner’s criticisms are largely correct. According to Hamilton, the civil asset forfeiture system puts the burden of proof on the property owner when it should “more rightfully” be on the government, noting that some officers act in bad faith. She said that those bad actors will target the lower class and out-of-state individuals, who are unlikely to fight to recoup their losses. There is also no evidence that civil asset forfeiture deters crime, she said.

“Sessions’ stance here is part of his overall agenda to go back to the law-and-order policies of the 1970s and 1980s,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “He seems to have learned little, if anything, from all the research since then that show many of those policies did more harm than good. In other words, he seems to take no mind to the evidence-based practices movement.”

The lawmakers requested that Sessions respond to the letter, which included a number of probing questions about the program, by Aug. 15.