AG Revives Program to Seize Assets Without Charges or Convictions

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Marijuana and more than $11,000 in cash found during a traffic stop were seized for asset forfeiture proceedings. - PHOTO COURTESY OF EUREKA POLICE DEPARTMENT.
  • Photo courtesy of Eureka Police Department.
  • Marijuana and more than $11,000 in cash found during a traffic stop were seized for asset forfeiture proceedings.
Advocates of civil asset forfeiture reform had a few choice names for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — among them “drug warrior” and “forfeiture fanatic” — when interviewed for a Journal story “The Trump Card” back in March.

There were also predictions that forfeitures would skyrocket under the influence of the former Alabama senator and one-time state attorney general who famously said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Just last week, Sessions made the move to breathe new life into the controversial legal tool that allows the federal government to permanently seize money, property and possessions suspected of being obtained through criminal activity, even without a corresponding criminal charge, let alone a conviction.

Some law enforcement agencies were having the federal government "adopt" the assets in exchanges for a portion of the proceeds under a program known as "equitable sharing" to sidestep stricter local or state laws on the practice.

The lifting of restrictions put into place by his predecessor, Eric Holder, was greeted with bipartisan criticism but Sessions said he included new “safe guards” to protect the innocent, while also noting his view that “the vast majority of cases” don’t involve “law-abiding people” whose possessions were unknowingly used in a crime.

Order No. 3946-2017 went into effect immediately on July 19. Read coverage from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

Exactly how Sessions’ action will effect California is still unclear.

The state already has some of the most restrictive forfeiture rules in the nation — requiring a conviction or guilty plea for property, belongings or cash under $40,000 to be forfeited.

Just three weeks before President Donald Trump entered office, a new state law went into effect that closed a loophole that had allowed local law enforcement agencies to share forfeiture revenue with the U.S. Department of Justice even when the conviction required under state law was missing.

Also unclear is whether the revived forfeiture push by the feds signals the long-suspected second coming of a war on drugs under the current administration.

Sessions describes the “new directive” as “especially for drug traffickers” in prepared remarks for a speech he gave before the National district Attorney Association on July 17 that specifically referenced the nation’s opioid crisis.

Of course, Sessions also once notably remarked that Humboldt’s largest cash crop — marijuana — was only “slightly less awful” than heroin.

“With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions’ remarks read. “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners.”

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