Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jul 2017
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


In today's polarized Washington, Jeff Sessions has managed the feat of
uniting folks on the left and right. We're referring to the Attorney
General's decision this week to revive an asset forfeiture program
whose overreach proved too much even for the Obama

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement officers to seize
property such as homes and cars and cash thought to be paid for or
generated by criminal activity. In 2015 then Attorney General Eric
Holder restricted the practice. But before an audience of
law-enforcement officials on Wednesday, Mr. Sessions revived it as a
"key tool" to "hit organized crime in the wallet." That's the theory.
But it has many problems.

The first is that taking property from citizens who have been
convicted of no crime is constitutionally dubious. Mr. Sessions is
also reviving a program that allows local law enforcement to seize
these assets in conjunction with the feds. This lets them evade the
laws in 14 states that bar asset forfeiture absent a criminal
conviction. The feds and local cops share the spoils, an obvious
incentive for abuse.

Mr. Sessions says he's added new safeguards to prevent abuse. But
Robert Johnson, an Institute for Justice lawyer who specializes in
property rights, points out that these mostly come down to "a pledge
to be more careful." For example, Justice says it will now require a
"form that state and local law enforcement must fill out," which will
then be reviewed by the department's lawyers. This is due process?

It's not even clear this program helps actual law enforcement. In
March the Justice Department Inspector General released a report on
cash seizures and forfeiture. It focused in particular on the Drug
Enforcement Agency, which accounted for 80% of Justice's cash seizures
from 2007 to 2016.

The IG found a fundamental problem. Because Justice has no
"seizure-specific metrics" to evaluate how these seizures and
forfeitures relate to criminal investigations, no one knows. In a
sample of 100 cash seizures, the DEA could verify only 44 that
"advanced or were related to criminal investigations."

In the past decade forfeitures under Justice's Asset Forfeiture
Program have reached $28 billion. We all know what it's like to be
ticketed by a police officer who is doing so as part of a quota
designed to raise revenue. But what happens when you give the cop the
right to take the car too? This dangerous practice cries out for a
slap from the Supreme Court or an override by Congress that for once
seems to have bipartisan agreement.