Pubdate: Tue, 27 Dec 2016
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


The AG nominee should be asked about an abusive practice.

Democrats are wrong in most of their criticism of Alabama Senator Jeff
Sessions to be Attorney General. But if they or fellow Republicans are
looking for a legitimate area to probe, they should explore his views on
governmenta€™s use of civil forfeiture.

The all-too-common practice allows law enforcement to take private
property without due process and has become a cash cow for state and local
police and prosecutors. Under a federal program called a€śequitable
sharing,a€ť local law enforcement can team up with federal authorities to
seize property in exchange for 80% of the proceeds.

Assets are often seizeda€"and never returneda€"without any judicial
process or court supervision. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture
doesna€™t require a criminal conviction or even charges. According to the
Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which tracks forfeitures, 13% of all
forfeitures done by the Justice Department between 1997 and 2013 were in
criminal cases while 87% were civil forfeitures. And 88% of those
forfeitures were done by an administrative agency, not a court.

Civil-rights activists have campaigned for years to end forfeiture abuses.
But in a 2015 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Sessions
defended the practice. He said he doesna€™t a€śthink ita€™s wrong toa€"for
federal government to adopt state casesa€ť and added that a€śtaking and
seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal
gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.a€ť

Mr. Sessions said he was a€śvery unhappya€ť with criticism of a program
that mostly took money from people who have a€śdone nothing in their lives
but sell dope.a€ť But his focus on the utility of criminal forfeitures
overlooks the serious need for reform to end due-process abuse in civil

The AG nominee was once a prosecutor in Alabama, and that state is among
the big offenders. According to a report by the Institute for Justice,
between 2000 and 2013 Alabama took in more than $75 million in revenue
through the equitable-sharing program. IJ ranks Alabama 31st in the nation
for the amount of money it received in equitable-sharing payments from the
Justice Department from 2011 to 2013. The top three, which take the least
amount of money in equitable sharing, are South Dakota, North Dakota and
Wyoming. Worst are Rhode Island, California and New York.

In 2015 then-Attorney General Eric Holder rolled back part of the
equitable-sharing program known as a€śadoptiona€ť which allows state
governments to get a piece of the federal forfeiture pie. But this was
only a suspension, and the former status quo can be reinstated by another
Attorney General.

The lack of procedural protection coupled with financial incentives has
turned policing for profit into a slush fund for governments hungry for
cash, and the payouts too often come at the expense of civil liberties.
Wea€™d like to hear what Mr. Sessions thinks of the practice today.
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