Starting Wednesday, local police will be able to take cash and property from suspected criminals under federal law before they are convicted of a crime, even if state laws prohibit the practice.
The new rules, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will allow local police to seize the assets of suspected criminals even if it’s prohibited under local law, provided they get permission from federal authorities. This type of “civil asset forfeiture” was banned under the Obama administration, but Sessions is bringing it back, with a vengeance.
In a speech Wednesday, Sessions introduced his new policy, reversing a 2015 reform by Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, that scaled back the practice. It means local law enforcement will be able to seize the assets of suspected drug dealers, with permission from the DEA.
As a senator, Sessions opposed Eric Holder’s reform, calling it a “huge detriment” to local law enforcement. Thirteen states have laws against seizing and forfeiting assets without a conviction, including Oregon, Missouri, and New Mexico, according to the Institute for Justice.
Local police say civil asset forfeitures are an effective tool to combat drug crimes, especially those involving cartel networks, allowing local law enforcement to seize the proceeds of drug deals or possessions like cars or homes. But a March 2017 Inspector General report found that the Department of Justice lacks data that shows asset forfeitures aid in criminal investigations.
Federal prosecutors across the country cheered the announcement Wednesday. “The new policy recognizes the important role asset forfeiture plays in depriving criminals of the lifeblood that drives criminal organizations,” the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys said in a statement.
But Freedom Partners, a political group backed by Koch Industries, called the new policy “unjust and unconstitutional.”
Many Republicans in Congress, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, supported the 2015 reform limiting forfeiture.
“We’re going to have a fairer justice system because of it,” Grassley told the Washington Post in 2015. “The rule of law ought to protect innocent people, and civil asset forfeiture hurt a lot of people.”
According to the Inspector General, the DEA seized more than $3 billion worth of assets without obtaining convictions from 2007 through 2016. Annual DEA seizure amounts were cut by more than one-third after the 2015 reform.
Senator Mike Lee, a member of the Judiciary Committee, released a statement Wednesday opposing Sessions’ new policy. “Instead of revising forfeiture practices in a manner to better protect Americans’ due process rights, the DOJ seems determined to lose in court before it changes its policies for the better,” Lee said.
This is Sessions’ second direct reversal of an Eric Holder policy; the first was a May reversal of Holder’s mandatory minimum sentencing reform.