A lot of things were bound to change under the Trump administration. And so far, many of the changes have come courtesy of the Department of Justice. This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama senator, announced that the Justice Department will expand civil forfeiture programs, which allow law enforcement to seize people’s cash, homes, and other possessions in the name of punishment.
Civil seizure and forfeiture is a very controversial practice.
The procedures were created during Prohibition and regained popularity at the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s to ensure that no criminal could keep the profits of their criminal activity, which in theory makes some logical sense. You bust a drug dealer, and seize the cash, product, and any possible possessions that came from their drug money pending prosecution as a way to send a message to people to not commit crimes. Depending on your view of crime and effective prosecution, that might seem like a prudent thing for law enforcement to do.
But in practice, it just doesn’t work. Instead, it allows police officers to seize someone’s money, car, or even their home on mere suspicion — in many cases, the person hasn’t even been charged with a crime, let alone prosecuted or convicted. And even if the person isn’t charged with a crime at all, the government keeps those assets.
According to a March report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, from 2007 to 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained $3.2 billion in cash seizures without filing any charges against the people from whom they took the money. And it’s not easy to get that money back.
Here’s the thing: A lot of times, lower-income people and people of color are the target of criminal investigations. Cash, for example, can be seized during traffic stops that result in no charges at all. And that money could be everything the person has in their checking account. It’s likely not a lot of money, either, but it means everything to the individual from whom it was seized.
The tricky thing about civil forfeiture is that the government not only takes assets without charging people, they also don’t have to make any effort to return the assets. It’s up to the individual, or family, to seek the property’s return. That costs money in legal fees — sometimes more than what the assets are worth — which leaves people who are struggling to make ends meet, feed their children, take care of elderly parents, or even get to work forced to go to the courthouse to take care of their business.
Many politicians feel that civil forfeiture is not a good way to prevent crime (which is what it’s supposed to do) and that it also infringes on people’s civil rights. Actually, most Republicans and Democrats agree that it’s not effective. Yet, Sessions announced this week that he plans on expanding the programs, without even addressing the abuses by law enforcement. Well, kind of. He said to a group of local prosecutors in Minneapolis on Monday:
But no one who has experience with these programs believes that forfeitures work. Even the previously mentioned Department of Justice report from March this year, completed by its own inspector general, concluded:
Meanwhile, there have been reports of police departments using their “wish lists,” like if they want a a Keurig in the break room, when seizing assets. Really. Not all law enforcement officials are corrupt, but expanding forfeiture programs without addressing the abuses and problems with them is not a very good move.
Sessions’ decision to expand civil forfeiture is, however, in line with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance take on crime. Remember: Trump campaigned on closing borders to prevent so-called rapists and drug dealers from Mexico from entering the U.S. (even though that’s a very ill-informed breakdown of the populations that emigrate to America) and inciting fear about “carnage” in the streets of America’s “inner cities,” which, quite frankly, is dead wrong.
Politically, expanding civil forfeiture powers to law enforcement and hard-line prosecutors is a good way to go for Sessions and the Trump administration if they want to keep certain voters happy. But the forfeiture program hurts more Americans than it helps, and having an honest conversation about the legality and benefits of the procedure might be a better first step.