Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jul 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Rebecca R. Ruiz


WASHINGTON - The Justice Department revived a widely criticized
practice on Wednesday that allows state and local law enforcement
officials to use federal law to seize the cash, cars or other personal
property of people suspected of crimes but not charged.

The department issued new guidance expanding the federal government's
use of so-called civil asset forfeiture, labeling it a necessary tool
to fight crime. But civil rights advocates say it can be abused by law
enforcement officials and deprive people who have done nothing wrong
of their right to due process, a charge that Rod J. Rosenstein, the
deputy attorney general, contested.

"This is not about taking assets from innocent people," Mr. Rosenstein
told reporters. "It's about taking assets that are the proceeds of, or
the tools of, criminal activity, and primarily drug dealing."

In amending the policy, created during the war on drugs in the 1980s
and restricted in 2015 under the attorney general at the time, Eric H.
Holder Jr., as part of a broad check on police power, Attorney General
Jeff Sessions marked a further undoing of the Obama administration's
legacy while advancing his law-and-order agenda.

The new policy revives so-called federally adopted forfeitures, which
empower state and local law enforcement to use federal law to bypass
more restrictive state laws to seize the proceeds from crimes and to
share the profits with federal authorities. That money may then be
repurposed, the Justice Department said, for training or equipment,
such as bulletproof vests or bomb-disposal equipment.

The Justice Department also added new safeguards: requiring local
authorities to provide additional detail justifying the probable cause
for seizure; mandating new training of state and local law
enforcement; and stipulating that federal prosecutors approve certain
seizures, including those of cash under $10,000, to curb fraud and

Law enforcement groups gathered at the Justice Department with Mr.
Sessions for the announcement on Wednesday were enthusiastic about
what some saw as a chance to supplement thin budgets.

"D.O.J. all but stopped working with local police in this process, and
this is a critical tool that we all need," J. Thomas Manger, president
of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the chief of police in
Montgomery County, Md., told Mr. Sessions. "I'm really encouraged by
the fact that you saw the public's concern with this program and you
strengthened the accountability measures for local police."

Under the Obama administration, seizures of money or other assets by
state and local authorities who used federal law brought in several
billion dollars, but critics pointed to what they saw as an outsize
impact on innocent people. In eliminating the policy in January 2015,
Mr. Holder called asset forfeiture "a critical law enforcement tool
when used appropriately" but said he was ending the more limited
policy to protect civil liberties.

Ben Ruddell, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union
of Illinois, said Mr. Sessions was re-establishing a policy with
little mainstream support.

"There's bipartisan consensus in states all over the country that
forfeiture has gone too far and needs to be constrained," Mr. Ruddell
said. "Now you have the attorney general of the United States saying,
'We have to double down and do more of this.' He's completely swimming
against the tide of current thinking."

In Illinois, legislation passed this year would require a higher level
of proof for the government to seize someone's property - not simply
probable cause - and create an option for innocent parties seeking to
recover their assets to have their claims expedited. That bill awaits
the governor's signature.

A host of other states have in recent years enacted restrictions on
civil asset forfeiture, including California, Connecticut, Michigan,
Maryland and Nebraska.

Mr. Ruddell called New Mexico's law "the gold standard." It requires
that a person be criminally convicted before his or her property is
seized and stipulates that forfeiture proceeds go to a general state
revenue fund rather than directly to the law enforcement agency that
seized the assets, aiming to eliminate any profit incentive.

But with the change in federal policy, the impact of some state laws
could be limited, allowing local authorities a workaround.

Mr. Rosenstein said that the policy was not intended to deliver on any
promises to police or to "please a particular constituency," and that
he thought it was critical to "return this tool to the hands of local
law enforcement" in the face of rising drug overdose deaths in America.

"If you look at any federal program, any program is going to be used
improperly," Mr. Rosenstein said. "When we get a credible allegation
there has been some abuse, we're going to look into it and make sure
that people are held accountable."