Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jul 2017
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Aruna Viswanatha


Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday ordered the Justice
Department to resume participating in asset seizures by local police,
one of several Obama-era policies the agency has reversed.

Officials said the move was part of an effort to combat recent
increases in drug abuse and violent crime. The Justice Department in
2015 largely ended the property-seizure program after critics said it
allowed local law-enforcement officials to take cash and other assets
from individuals without proving they had done anything wrong.

In a briefing with reporters, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
said the agency was reinstating the practice with additional
safeguards. Mr. Rosenstein said this would "empower police and
prosecutors" with an "important tool that can be used to combat crime"
and that it would help coordination with local police and sheriffs.

"They were disappointed it was taken away," Mr. Rosenstein

The program had allowed local law enforcement to retain a greater
portion of any seized assets-such as cash or other valuables-than
under many state laws. Local officials have argued that ending it
removed a key source of funding that helped them pay for necessary
equipment and upgrades.

While asset seizures were meant to target drug traffickers and other
criminals, they became increasingly controversial as people complained
that their money, cars and other property were seized without evidence
that they had committed any crime. Conviction of a crime requires
proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but officials could take an
individual's goods after showing only that a "preponderance of the
evidence" suggests they were ill-gotten.

The Justice Department's 2015 decision to end the practice met with
bipartisan praise, and at least one Republican lawmaker questioned Mr.
Sessions' decision to reinstate it.

"This is a troubling decision for the due-process protections afforded
to well as the growing consensus we've seen nationwide on this
issue," Rep. Darrell Issa said Tuesday.

Civil-liberties groups also attacked the change. "Civil asset
forfeiture is tantamount to policing for profit, generating millions
of dollars annually that the agencies get to keep," said Kanya
Bennett, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prosecutors applauded the move. The president of the National
Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Lawrence Leiser, who has been
supportive of Mr. Sessions' changes to criminal-justice policy, said
the asset-forfeiture change was "necessary to protect our citizens
while depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains."

Under procedures called "adoptions," local police agencies could seize
property in accordance with federal law and ask the federal government
to "adopt" the forfeiture. The U.S. would then sell the assets and
return about 80% of the proceeds to the state or local agency.

The tools can be used, for example, to seize illicit drugs, bundles of
cash, or weapons from suspected drug dealers or gang members.

The Justice Department said that in reviving the program, it would
enact additional safeguards. The head of the Justice Department's
money-laundering and asset-recovery section, Deborah O'Connor, said in
a memo that state and local officials would now need to fill out a
form with additional information about the evidence justifying the

"There is going to be scrutiny to make sure every adoption is going to
comply with the Fourth Amendment," Mr. Rosenstein said, referring to
the right to be free from unreasonable seizures.

The new program also requires additional training in federal rules for
local police who want to participate.

Justice Department officials said they believed the change was
necessary to help take criminal proceeds from drug dealers and help
combat the increase in overdose deaths. Last year, an estimated 59,000
Americans died from drug overdoses, according to the Drug Enforcement

The shift is the latest Obama administration policy to be scuttled by
Mr. Sessions. In May, he ended a policy that directed prosecutors to
avoid charges carrying long, mandatory-minimum sentences against less
serious, nonviolent drug offenders.