Civil forfeiture is a process by which law enforcement agencies seize money and property from suspected criminals and criminal organizations. The assets can be seized whenever law enforcement personnel determine they are connected to, or are the result of, criminal activity. This can occur long before the owner of those assets goes to trial, and it can be an uphill battle trying to get them back.
When owners are unable to, essentially, prove their assets are innocent, the law enforcement agency that seized them can keep the assets. It can use them for a special purpose, like a party, or simply to shore up the budget. However, in some cases federal agencies have used a process called “adoptive forfeiture” to take the seized assets a second time — this time from local law enforcement agency.
The idea behind civil forfeiture was that seizing cash and valuables from criminals and organized crime organizations would be crippling and could reduce crime. Since it could take place before trial, defendants who are unsuccessful at retrieving their forfeited assets can be hard-pressed to pay for a defense.
Sessions reversing Obama-era limitations on seizures, adoptive forfeitures
In the field of criminal justice, there has been bipartisan agreement that the process of civil forfeiture is problematic. It’s far from clear that it reduces crime, but it seems very clear that many innocent people have fallen victim to it.
Moreover, the fact that police departments and federal agencies get to keep any forfeited assets has led to the criticism that the entire process promotes public corruption.
Nevertheless, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging law enforcement to increase their use of civil forfeiture saying, “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.”
In 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued a policy memo restricting the use of civil forfeiture by federal law enforcement and prohibited adoptive forfeitures.
In a speech before the National District Attorneys Association on Monday, Sessions announced that he will issue a new policy directive increasing the use of civil forfeiture. Furthermore, he plans to reinstate adoptive forfeitures, which may serve to concentrate seized assets in federal hands.
“With care and professionalism we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions said in his remarks.
Civil forfeiture is a tool, but it should be used carefully and never unjustly. After all, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to protect us from “unreasonable” searches and seizures by the government, not merely unlawful ones.