Jeff Sessions has not been having a good week—Trump has been using him as a political punching bag on Twitter while media pundits debate whether he will resign, be fired, or simply endure his boss’s abuse. That said, Jeff Sessions has largely avoided substantive criticism for his decision to pull back the DOJ’s oversight over civil asset forfeiture at the state and local levels, opening the door for police to abuse this system even more than they have in past years.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police officers to seize the assets of people they accuse of a crime and use the assets to fund their department, unless the owner can prove that they didn’t obtain those assets through illegal means. In many states, police departments are allowed to keep all funds seized, while in others, the funds are divided between police and prosecutors or funneled into other government coffers.
Police don’t need to arrest you, charge you, or convict you to seize your property. In fact, there are many reported cases where the police will use civil asset forfeiture on a person’s car or money, then threaten to arrest them if they challenge the seizure, or let them walk if they just let it go. In some particularly repellent cases, the police have threatened to call child protective services on seizure victims and take their children away if they dare challenge the loss of their property.
Civil asset forfeiture flips the burden of proof so that the citizen must prove that their money is legitimate or that their car was bought legally, lest the police literally rob them. To make matters worse, even if you have never even been suspected of committing a crime, if your child decides to sell some cannabis out of your home, the police can push seizure proceedings on the home because it was used for criminal activity (e.g. Philadelphia police seized the Sourovelis home after their son sold $40 worth of heroin to an undercover officer).
While civil asset forfeiture was a significant injustice—and multi-billion dollar boon for police departments—during the Obama administration, Eric Holder’s DOJ made efforts to reign in the abuse of this tactic. The DOJ issued a policy in 2015 that limited federal asset seizures to cases that involve public safety, protecting non-violent offenders from facing these proceedings. As the vast majority of civil asset forfeitures are for drug crimes (it isn’t like the DOJ has tried to seize the assets of bankers who stole billions in 2008…that would be step too far), the effect of this policy change was to protect addicts from having their property seized due to their disease.
Jeff Sessions is an old-school drug warrior who infamously claimed that he thought that the KKK “was okay until [he] found out that they smoked pot” and has brought this attitude back into the DOJ. By rescinding the Obama-era order against civil asset forfeitures for non-violent criminal activities, he has dramatically increased the ease by which federal authorities can steal your property.
One particularly worrying possibility is that this could be the start of a push against cannabis businesses operating in states which have legalized cannabis. While these operations are legal at the state level, the federal government still has the authority to shut them down for violating federal drugs laws, and then seize their property to sell at auction. This possibility is supported by the fact that Jeff Sessions has already sent an official letter to numerous Senators to ask that they support letting the DOJ allocate funds for operations targeting medical pot dispensaries in states that have legalized them.
Regardless of the reason for this shift in DOJ policy, the result is the same—millions more Americans are opened up to having billions of dollars’ worth of the their property seized by police for little more than being accused of committing a crime. This shift in policy is a regression and we need to be pushing for less state and local abuse of civil asset forfeiture instead of making it easier for federal authorities to abuse this tactic.
If you want more independent reporting like this, please support Joshua and TATM with a donation– Every $1 helps us grow!