U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rolling back limitations on the poorly conceived and widely abused practice of police seizing money or property from people who all too often were never charged with, much less convicted of, a crime.
“Asset forfeiture,” which once put billions of dollars in property and cash into the coffers of all levels of law enforcement, was intended to separate criminals from their ill-gotten gains. But widespread abuses led former Attorney General Eric Holder to severely restrict the practice.
New Mexico has seen its share of such abuse. In fact, in 2015 the Legislature passed, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed, a bipartisan reform to the New Mexico Forfeiture Act that prevents New Mexico law enforcement from seizing property – such as cars and cash – from someone and putting the money from those seizures into their budgets without first convicting the person of a crime.
Yet Sessions is apparently blind or indifferent to such needs for reform. A recent Department of Justice Inspector General report faulted the Drug Enforcement Administration – a key abuser of asset forfeiture – for its inability to explain how its asset forfeiture practices benefit criminal investigations. The IG report said that in a sample of 100 cash seizures its investigators reviewed, the agency could only verify 44 were even related to criminal investigations.
Although Sessions claims there are new safeguards in place for the program – which allows local authorities to circumvent more restrictive state seizure laws by using federal law – the bottom line is law enforcement, including the feds, get part of whatever gets seized. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., calls Sessions’ move “a troubling step backward” that would “bring back a loophole that’s become one of the most flagrantly abused provisions of this policy.”
“Criminals shouldn’t be able to keep the proceeds of their crime,” he adds, “but innocent Americans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their private property rights, in order to make that happen.” Issa sponsored legislation this year to rein-in asset forfeiture.
Though the rollback of protections against unlawful seizure reflects Sessions’ tough-on-crime persona, it doesn’t do enough to prevent a return to the bad old days when cash-strapped law enforcement agencies would eagerly confiscate cash, vehicles and other property from people they kinda, sorta thought might be up to no good – and then balance budgets, buy military-style vehicles and weapons, and bolster community policing.
Sessions was criticized last week by President Donald Trump, the man who appointed him, for recusing himself from overseeing the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the last presidential election. If Sessions survives in the Trump administration, he’d do well to reconsider his gutting of the protections that helped curb abuses of the ill-advised asset-seizure program.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.