AG Sessions plans to seize your property without ever charging you with a crime
♦ Civil Asset Forfeiture program to be revived and thrive under the Trump White House ♦
by Carmen Martinez, for Law Office of Sergio H. Benavides – July 26, 2017
It used to be that you were innocent until proven guilty, that to be treated like a criminal you had to actually be a criminal, or at least charged. That seems to be a thing of the past.
Under the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “Civil Asset Forfeiture,” will be expanding. Civil asset forfeiture allows the police to permanently seize property from suspected criminals without charging them with a crime. The problem: a suspected criminal is not a criminal. That’s right; this means that if your or your property is suspected to be connected to a crime, law enforcement has the right to take it, whether or not you ultimately are found to be guilty. And if you are found innocent, it doesn’t mean you get it back.
Sessions stated, “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.” However, to be a criminal, you have to be found guilty of a crime.
This belief that “care and professionalism” will ensure that the expansion of this program will help in the combat of crimes is bunk. On Wednesday, July 19, he signed a new directive that revived a provision that allows the federal government to “adopt” cases. When forfeiture cases are taken over by the feds, the money is put into a pool of money where 80% goes back to the department that handed over the case (thanks to the Equitable Sharing Program). Currently, hundreds of millions of dollars are redistributed back to departments. With the expansion of the program, this amount is set to increase. Meanwhile, average citizens’ private property rights will significantly decrease.
Most citizens in this country affected by civil forfeiture cases are ordinary individuals that are not able to financially defend their interests. Petty and abusive seizures, including warrantless police seizures, have increased as a result of civil forfeiture policies.
The idea that a suspect who may not have been guilty loses their property raises serious concerns. This isn’t just affecting criminals. In fact, most property taken is obtained from every-day Americans. All that is required is mere suspicion that the property is connected to a crime.
♦ In 2007, the DEA took over $3 billion in cash from people not charged with any offense.
♦ In 2016 Oklahoma police seized $53,000 owned by a Christian band, an orphanage and a church after stopping a man on a highway for a broken taillight.
The Justice Department tried to reassure people by creating guidelines, including requiring local authorities to provide additional details justifying the probable cause for the seizure. They have mandated new training for law enforcement; and stipulating that federal prosecutors approve certain seizures, including those of cash under $10,000, to curb fraud and abuse.
This practice has been consistently considered suspect by the U.S. Supreme Court. But they have not found it unconstitutional. In previous years, states have revised their policies. Former Attorney General Eric Holder banned federal agency adoption of property in early 2015, with the exception for limited circumstances. States have tried to protect their residents by passing laws; In fact, thirteen states allow forfeiture only in cases where there’s been a criminal conviction.
In this Trump-era, mere suspicion will again become sufficient, to deprive Americans of their right to private property.
The question that remains is: What can we do to protect ourselves? In 2016, California Governor Brown signed into law a bill that would, in most cases, prevent law enforcement agencies from profiting from seized cash or property unless a person has been convicted of a crime. Starting January 2017, California law requires a conviction before forfeiture in any state case where the items seized are cash under $40,000 or other property such as homes and vehicles regardless of value (the law also prevents law enforcement receiving a share unless this threshold is met).
One thing is clear: Congress will have to decide whether Civil Asset Forfeiture will become a thing of the past or continue to be scrutinized for years to come.