AG Jeff Sessions’ stirs a hornets’ nest with expansion of civil asset forfeiture

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By now, readers may have seen the news U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expanding the use civil asset forfeiture.

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice issued new guidance to expand the government’s use of the practice, a decades-old tool in War on Drugs which allows law enforcement to seize property from people if officers believe it was earned through criminal activity.

The use of civil forfeiture has raised serious controversy in Texas , where law enforcement agencies have profited handsomely from the use of asset forfeiture, seizing almost $63 million worth of property, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington D.C.-based law firm which opposes the practice.

This past legislative session, Sen. Konni Burton, (R-Colleville) filed legislation requiring seized property be returned unless law enforcement gained a conviction.

Statewide reform efforts made national news after President Donald Trump joked at a meeting with sheriffs in February about “destroying” the career of a Texas state senator trying to curtail state forfeiture laws.

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Prosecutors, meanwhile, came out against reforms – which died before becoming law – saying curtailing forfeiture would “reward” drug cartels.

“Asset forfeiture removes the tools of crime from criminal organizations, deprives wrongdoers of the proceeds of crime, recovers property for compensating victims and deters crime,” wrote  Joe D. Brown, the Grayson County criminal district attorney in Sherman, in a column in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Washington D.C.-based libertarian organization which opposes civil forfeiture, sharply criticized Sessions’ expansion of the practice.

Civil forfeiture is inherently abusive,” Sheth said. “No one should lose his or her property without being first convicted of a crime, let alone charged with one.”

The move is the latest in Sessions’ tough-on-crime agenda, bringing back oft-criticized policies that had begun to be phased out in recent years.

Like Sessions’ decision to bring back harsh sentencing for low-level drug offenders, the revival has drawn criticism from civil rights activists and other law enforcement reformers, saying it is a page from a worn-out and ineffective playbook.

Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the move hands state and local police greater ability to profit from the seizure of property without having to prove any criminal wrongdoing.

“This Attorney General is taking this country down a destructive and foolish path by escalating failed drug war tactics like civil forfeiture that disproportionately hurt people of color and individuals who can’t afford to fight the forfeiture,” he said.

Law enforcement, meanwhile, cheer the move, saying it gives officers the tools to do their job.

“D.O.J. all but stopped working with local police in this process, and this is a critical tool that we all need,” J. Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the chief of police in Montgomery County, Md. told Sessions, according to the New York Times.

The DOJ had curtailed a forfeiture practice in 2015 that allowed local law enforcement to share proceeds with federal authorities. As the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham notes, “it allowed state and local authorities to sidestep sometimes stricter state laws, processing forfeiture cases under the more permissive federal statute.”

Law enforcement can seize the property without winning a criminal conviction – or in some cases, without even charging anyone. That has led to cases like one in 2014 where officers in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport seized a 24-year-old man’s college savings,  and Oklahoma cops seized money a Christian rock band had raised while on tour. In March, the Justice Department’s Inspector General issued a report that found that the Drug Enforcement Agency seized $3.2 billion from people without bringing civil or criminal charges against the owners of the cash.


St. John Barned-Smith covers public safety and major breaking news for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Send tips to

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