In the meantime, Sessions is doing exactly the wrong thing by doubling down on asset seizure. The message it sends is that the feds see the rest of us as prey, not as citizens. The attorney general should be ashamed to take that position. And, really, he should just be gone.
This is a horrible expansion of an unconstitutional and abusive practice.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed an order on Wednesday reversing the Obama administration’s limits on civil asset forfeiture, a widely criticized practice in which law enforcement officers seize cash and property from citizens who have not been charged with crimes.
The policy change comes as a number of states — both red and blue — have clamped down on civil forfeiture abuses, and it will allow local police departments to circumvent state laws that restrict the practice.
In the last three years, 24 states have comprehensively reformed their forfeiture laws, according to Sheth. As of July 10, when Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed H.B. 8146, 14 states require a criminal conviction before seized assets can be legally forfeited to authorities (if no conviction results, the assets must be returned to their owner).
Several states have other types of restrictions — some ban the use of forfeited assets for law enforcement services and reroute the money to other public services, thereby eliminating the profit motive some say leads to abuse of the practice. (For a specific list of individual state policies, visit the Institute of Justice’s interactive map.)
But Sessions’ order gives officers a way to bypass state restrictions.
It revives a program called Equitable Sharing or “adoptive forfeiture,” which allows local law enforcement to process forfeiture cases under federal statute and “share” the assets with federal authorities. In practice, the federal government sends up to 80 percent of the assets right back to local departments, effectively allowing them to get around stricter state laws, says Rulli. Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, eliminated adoptive forfeiture except in rare cases.
Good for Nebraska. Can we bring this reform to Wisconsin?
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill on Tuesday that eliminates civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize and keep property without filing charges or securing criminal convictions. The bill, LB 1106, passed the unicameral legislature last week by a vote of 38 to 8.
Civil forfeiture has ensnared a wide swath of victims in Nebraska. A Peruvian pastor once had $14,000 seized during a traffic stop. Only after the local chapter of the ACLU intervened was he able to recover his cash. Last year, a federal appellate court upheld forfeiting more than $63,000 in savings from a decorated Air Force veteran, even though he was never charged with a crime.
The newly signed law provides sweeping reforms. First and foremost, Nebraska now requires a criminal conviction to forfeit property. The accused must be convicted of an offense involving illegal drugs, child pornography or illegal gambling to lose their cash, vehicles, firearms or real estate. Nebraska joins just nine other states that require a criminal conviction as a prerequisite for most or all forfeiture cases. Following North Carolina and New Mexico, Nebraska is now the third state largely without civil forfeiture. In addition to the criminal conviction requirement, LB 1106 also enacts new reporting requirements for seizures and forfeitures.