Pubdate: Thu, 27 Jul 2017
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: George J. Terwilliger


A critical way of ensuring crime doesn't pay is for law enforcement to
seize the proceeds of drug deals or other illegal activity. This
process, called asset forfeiture, is a valued part of a comprehensive
criminal-justice program, but proper oversight is needed to prevent

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions restarted the longstanding
practice, suspended by the Obama administration in 2015, of allowing
state authorities to use federal forfeiture procedures. Mr. Sessions
also introduced important safeguards to protect innocent people.

Still, critics challenged the practice's reinstatement, citing
instances when police wrongly took property from people who turned out
to be innocent. The correct response to such concerns, however, isn't
to end asset forfeiture but to fix it.

Every day brings news of American families devastated by violence or
drug use. Overdoses are a common occurrence. These tragedies are the
work of criminal gangs that flood the streets with drugs and turn
urban cores into combat zones. Such gangs exist for one simple reason:
to make money.

Trafficking drugs, firearms and human beings is a means to their
enrichment. Gang leaders get the cash but often evade prosecution by
remaining distant from the provable dirty work. Taking away their
money is therefore as important as seizing their contraband and
putting their minions in prison.

At the same time, it's important to protect innocent people from
erroneous seizures. Mr. Sessions's new guidelines say that state or
local agencies seeking forfeiture under federal law must demonstrate
probable cause within 15 days of the seizure. The sponsoring federal
agency must notify the property's owner within 45 days, so he can
challenge it, including by going to court. Both of these time lines
are twice as fast as required by law. And the probable-cause standard
is the same one police have to meet before making an arrest or getting
a search warrant.

Mr. Sessions also strengthened oversight for seizures of smaller
amounts of cash-$10,000 or under-and directed greater caution and
restraint in forfeiting homes and vehicles. Scrutiny of these types of
seizures by Justice Department lawyers will be ratcheted up to prevent
and catch any overuse or abuse.

Police generally are careful and conscientious, including with asset
forfeiture, which is why wrongful seizures are the exception. Smart
law-enforcement leaders also know that if the practice is abused and
innocent people are hurt, they could lose access to this valuable tool.

President Trump has directed his administration to attack the violence
and drug trafficking afflicting American cities and towns. Drug money
and other proceeds of organized crime fuel the engine of cartel and
gang violence, while corrupting foreign government officials.

It makes sense to target that money for seizure and then use it to
offset the financial burden criminals impose on taxpayers. The
increased scrutiny of asset forfeiture Mr. Sessions has directed will
help ensure the innocent are protected-while still allowing police to
turn dirty money against the criminals who illegally acquired it.

Mr. Terwilliger, a partner in the Washington office of McGuireWoods
LLP, was deputy attorney general, 1991-93.
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