Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the appointment of a watchdog this week to oversee the civil asset Forfeiture program his Justice Department re-instated earlier this year. The move is a bid to quell widespread bipartisan criticisms of the scheme which allows law enforcement agencies to confiscate property from Americans without proof of a crime.
In a statement, Sessions doubled down on his belief that the benefits Civil Forfeiture provides for law enforcement agencies outweigh threats to American property rights.
“As our law enforcement partners will tell you and as President Trump knows well, asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels. Even more importantly, it helps return property to the victims of crime,” Sessions said.
Following months of criticism from both liberals and conservatives after Sessions reversed a 2015 Justice Department directive ending the forfeiture program, it has evidently become apparent to Sessions that something needed to be done to head off federal legislation banning the government’s property theft scheme for good.
Congressional interest in federal laws banning civil forfeiture increased when the Justice Department revived its Equitable Sharing program, which essentially creates state/federal partnerships encouraging the confiscation of property from people under government scrutiny. Legislatures in more than a dozen states already have laws on the books designed to make it difficult for agencies to profit from asset forfeiture. But with his reinstatement of the federal asset forfeiture program, Sessions also trampled on those states’ rights by giving agencies a way to bypass the laws by creating a way for law enforcement to process property taken under a federal statute and hand it over to the feds. Participating agencies then receive a portion of whatever profit the government makes from the property.
But, no worries, the same agency encouraging government agents to snap up property from the accused is hiring someone to oversee the process.
Sessions on Tuesday announced that the DoJ is hiring a Director of Asset Forfeiture Accountability to work in the Deputy Attorney General’s office.
Sessions said: “The Director will begin work immediately on priority initiatives and recommendations, including: modernization of the National Asset Forfeiture Strategic Plan, updating the Asset Forfeiture Program’s policy guidance, and improving controls over use of program funds. I make this decision today because I believe it is important to have senior-level accountability in the Department of the day-to-day workings of the asset forfeiture program, as well as authority to coordinate with relevant components to make the necessary changes to the program to ensure it continues to operate in an accountable and responsible way.”
If you read what Sessions said carefully, it’s pretty clear that federal civil forfeiture conducted under the watchful eye of his new accountability director will just like it did before the program was halted in 2015 because of major threats to liberty. Simply, the watcher and the watched is the same guy– and he’s part of the same Justice Department that has raked in billions of dollars grabbing property with almost no judicial oversight.
And Sessions made clear during congressional testimony Wednesday that his intention for the new hire isn’t to shed negative light on the program.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee called for a formal review of the civil forfeiture program during Sessions’ appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee– but the AG insisted that his new watchdog will be sufficient to ensure that American property rights are not abused.
Earlier this year, civil liberty supporters in Congress began working on legislation to place serious controls on civil forfeiture or end the program outright. Now would be a good time for Congress to double down on those efforts.
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