Given Sessions’ past pronouncements on pot, the cannabis community is understandably nervous about the directive. Could this mean the notoriously anti-marijuana Sessions is laying the groundwork for some sort of Kristallnacht against weed?
“We hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture — especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions said during his speech to the National District Attorney’s Association in Minneapolis. “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures.”
No Charges Necessary
“No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime,” the Attorney General said. What he didn’t mention was that asset forfeiture laws allow the cops to seize your money and belongings without a conviction, merely upon the suspicion that they are the proceeds from illegal drug activity.
Asset forfeiture is a very controversial practice, reports The Washington Post. It allows law enforcement to permanently take money and goods from individuals merely suspected of a crime.
In many cases, neither a criminal conviction nor even a criminal charge is necessary.
Cops Are Boasting About It
Police departments have even bragged about their civil asset forfeiture abuse, reports Dr. Joel McDurmon at The American Vision. “Not only are some police departments conscious they’re abusing people with these laws, but they boast about it and even cover in seminars how best to abuse it and get away with it,” McDurmon writes.
Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, some of which have been captured on video. The Institute for Justice, which brought the videos to the attention of The Times, says they show how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety.
In the training seminars, cops share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets, according to The New York Times.
In one video, Harry Connelly Jr., then city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., referred to seized assets as “little goodies.”
“We always try to get once in a while, maybe, a good car,” Connelly said. He advised police officers to be mindful of legal loopholes that could allow people to regain their property easily. He detailed one incident that occurred outside a local bar:
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’”
Under forfeiture laws at the federal level, and in most states, mere suspicion of wrongdoing is enough to allow police to seize cash and items indefinitely.
Cops Steal More Than Burglars
Many states, as well as the feds, allow law enforcement to keep cash that they seize, creating a profit motive. The dirty practice is so widespread, federal officers took more property from citizens in 2014 than burglars did. State and local authorities, of course, took untold millions beyond that.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) alone has taken more than $3 billion in cash from people not charged with any crime. That is from the Justice Department’s own numbers from the Inspector General.
The practice, of course, is heavily abused by cops. In one 2016 case, Oklahoma oink-oinks took $53,000 from a Christian band, an orphanage, and a church after pulling a man over for a broken taillight.
Asset Forfeiture Abuse Is Rampant
A few years before that, a Michigan drug task force raided the home of a “soccer mom,” on the suspicion she might be out of complaince with the state’s medical marijuana law.
They took “every belonging” from the family, including tools, a kid’s bicycle, and her daughter’s birthday money.
Motivated by an increasingly outraged citizenry, states have begun clamping down on the often-abused practice.“Thirteen states now allow forfeiture only in cases where there’s been a criminal conviction,” said Robert Everett Johnson, a lawyer for the Institute of Justice. The libertarian-leaning public interest law firm represents forfeiture defendants.
The Obama Justice Department in 2015 issued a memo sharply cutting back on one type of forfeiture allowing local cops to share part of their ill-gotten proceeds with federal authorities. Known as “adoptive” forfeiture, it allowed state and local cops to bypass state laws, which are sometimes stricter. They were allowed to process forfeiture cases under the harsher federal law.
Criminal justice organizations on both the left and the right cheered the move as a signal that Obama was serious about curtailing forfeiture abuses. But that’s all changes with the Trump Administration.
‘Serious Constitutional Concerns’
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a staunch Republican advocate for reforming asset forfeiture laws, said in a statement to Reason on Monday: “As Justice Thomas has previously said, there are serious constitutional concerns regarding modern civil asset forfeiture practices.
“The Department has an obligation to consider due process constraints in crafting its civil asset forfeiture policies,” Senator Lee said.
Darpana Sheth, another attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, called Sessions’ announcement “a disheartening setback in the fight to protect Americans’ private property rights” in a Monday statement.
“Ordinary Americans see that civil forfeiture is unconstitutional, and 24 states have taken steps to roll back civil forfeiture laws,” Sheth said. “The Attorney General’s plan to increase forfeitures is jarringly out of step with those positive developments.”
“Reversing the ban on adoptive seizures would revive one of the most notorious forms of forfeiture abuse,” Sheth said. “So-called ‘adoptive’ seizures allow state and local law enforcement to circumvent state-law limitations on civil forfeiture by seizing property and then transferring it to federal prosecutors for forfeiture under federal law. Bringing back adoptive seizures would create a road map to circumvent state-level forfeiture reforms.”
Attorney General Sessions, in his Monday speech, specifically called out adoptive forfeitures as an area for expansion. “Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate, as is sharing with our partners,” he said to a receptive audience of DA’s.
“This is a federalism issue,” Johnson, from the Institute of Justice, said. “Any return to adoptive forfeitures would circumvent limitations on civil forfeiture that are imposed by state legislatures.
“The Department of Justice is saying ‘We’re going to help state and local law enforcement to get around those reforms,” Johnson said.
The Trump Department of Justice didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sessions Threatens Marijuana Crackdown
Sessions has repeatedly hinted that he plans to target states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. He has asserted, with no evidence, that cannabis has worsened the national opioid epidemic.
“‘Recreational’ is a bike ride, a swim, going to the beach,” Sessions said. “Using a drug to put your brain in an altered state is not recreation. That is self-destructive behavior and escapism.”
Sessions apparently is trying to impose alcohol, his own legal drug of choice, on the entire country, even those who prefer legal weed. “Presumably, it is ‘recreation’ if you put your brain in an altered state with bourbon; just not with bongs,” writes Tom Moran of the Star Ledger.The Attorney General absurdly claimed in February that legalizing marijuana ends up creating more violent crime. He said he had this information from experience, reports Entrepreneur. Studies have shown the opposite.
Bottom line: Asset forfeiture laws are subsidizing the trampling of the Constitution, and of freedom in general, as well as savaging private property rights.