The Trump Administration Just Made it Easier for Law Enforcement to Take Your Property

Even if you haven’t been charged with a crime.

June 13, 2017 - Washington, District of Columbia, U.S.- Attorney General JEFF SESSIONS testifies at a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference with U.S. elections. (Credit Image: © Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Depo Photos via ZUMA Wire)Sait Serkan Gurbuz/ZUMA

The Trump administration is expanding the use of asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to take cash and property away from people, even if those individuals have not been charged with a crime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive on Wednesday instructing the Justice Department to renew a program known as “adoptive forfeiture,” a controversial practice the Obama administration ended in 2015. Adoptive forfeiture allows local law enforcement to sidestep state protections on asset forfeiture as long as they share a portion of the spoils with the federal government. “[A]sset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels,” Sessions said in prepared remarks announcing the directive. 

Adoptive forfeiture is one type of asset forfeiture, which has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, prompting 13 states to pass laws that prohibit police from permanently claiming property or cash from someone who has not been convicted of a crime. Instead of state laws, the adoptive program allows police to seize property and cash under federal guidelines, which are often more permissive. Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama administration aggressively attempted to curb the practice by severely restricting the circumstances in which police could rely on federal law to seize property and cash.

Sessions’ new rule outlines safeguards that Justice Department officials claim will keep the practice from being abused, but the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm, argues that the restrictions won’t protect people from police unjustly seizing their property. “The supposed ‘safeguards’ implemented by this policy directive offer little or no substantive protection to property owners as they depend primarily on self-policing rather than judicial oversight,” the group wrote in response to the new policy. “Most amount to nothing more than a pledge to be more careful.

Even a few Republicans are criticizing the move. “Ramping up adoptive forfeitures would circumvent much of the progress state legislatures have made [to] curb the misuse of civil forfeiture and expand a loophole that’s become one of the most flagrantly abused provisions of this policy,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has sponsored legislation to limit the use of asset forfeiture, said in a statement

Mark Holden, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of the Koch Industries, is even crying foul, calling asset forfeiture “unjust and unconstitutional.” “We agree with Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently noted that these operations ‘frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests,'” he said in a statement

For more context, check out our coverage from earlier this week, when Sessions announced the impending change.