Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to increase the use of asset forfeiture Monday, expanding a heavily criticized tool that allows the Department of Justice to seize property and cash from people suspected of criminal activity.
The DEA has used asset forfeiture to take over $3 billion from people without obtaining a criminal conviction since 2007, according to the Office of the Inspector General, and critics of the practice say it’s rampantly abused by local law enforcement agencies.
Asset forfeiture is designed to allow authorities to confiscate cars, houses, and cash from drug lords. But multiple reports have shown that most seizures are for small amounts and often made in connection with minor crimes like speeding or a broken headlight. Both Democrats and Republicans have slammed police for abusing the tool.
Twenty-four states have tried to overturn laws specific to civil asset forfeiture, and there are at least three pending bills in Congress reform the asset forfeiture process.
And yet, Sessions announced Monday that the Department of Justice will develop policies designed to increase the use of forfeiture.
“We hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture — especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions said during a speech in Minneapolis. “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment further.
A report by the Institute of for Justice showed the DOJ raked in $21.9 billion in asset forfeiture funds between 2001 and 2014, and that the vast majority of that money (87 percent) came from civil asset forfeiture, not criminal, meaning the owners of that money were not necessarily charged with wrongdoing.
“It leads to widespread abuse,” Darpana Sheth, the director of the Institute of for Justice’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse told VICE News. Darpana said there’s no evidence that asset forfeiture has curbed criminal activity.
In fact, the report by the Office of the Inspector General found that in over half the the cases it examined, “there was no discernible connection between the seizure and the advancement of law enforcement efforts.”
In one example reported by Forbes, a Nevada man was pulled over by the police for going 3 mph over the speed limit. The police confiscated $50,000 that the man had in the car, which he said was casino earnings. The man was never convicted of a crime, and in the end he wasn’t even given a traffic ticket.
The use of asset forfeiture also runs contrary to the Republican preference for small government, since it allows federal authorities to take private property from citizens with scant evidence of wrongdoing, Eapen Thampy, executive director for Americans for Forfeiture Reform told VICE News.
“Jeff Sessions certainly has an expansive view of the government’s power to seize private property,” Thampy said. “There’s so much they already take. I’m not sure what else they can do.”
Considering asset forfeiture already occurs regularly and accrues billions of dollars, Thampy said the incentive to expand policies may come down to one thing.
“It’s just money,” he said. “They want more money and they want more power. You don’t have to go through Congress for that.”