Speed Reads

Blast from the past

Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to ramp up asset forfeiture, where police take stuff from citizens

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that he intends to issue "a new directive on asset forfeiture," a controversial practice that allows law enforcement agents to seize and keep cash and property from people suspected but not charged with a crime, typically drug trafficking. The practice has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, after several egregious cases of apparent abuse, but Sessions said he intends to increase asset forfeiture by federal officials and help local law enforcement step around growing state restrictions.

"With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures," Sessions told the National District Attorney's Association at a conference in Minneapolis, according to his prepared remarks. "No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners."

The idea that criminals shouldn't get to keep the fruits of their crimes is pretty uncontroversial, notes Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post. But in most states, law enforcement agencies have wide latitude to seize assets from people charged with no crime, for sometimes suspect reasons, and they often get to keep the cash they seize. The "adoptive forfeitures" practice Sessions specifically backed on Monday, curtailed by his predecessor Eric Holder, allows authorities in states that limit asset forfeiture to use the more permissive federal rules then share the proceeds with federal agencies.

"Thirteen states now allow forfeiture only in cases where there's been a criminal conviction," Robert Everett Johnson at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, tells The Washington Post. "This is a federalism issue. ... The Department of Justice is saying 'we're going to help state and local law enforcement to get around those reforms.'" Asset forfeiture is lucrative for local, state, and federal agencies — in 2014 federal officers seized more property from Americans than burglars did, for example, and the DEA has taken more than $3 billion in cash from people never charged with a crime since 2007, according to the Justice Department Inspector General. States have seized many millions more.

For a primer on the practice and the controversy of civil asset forfeiture, you can watch John Oliver's mildly NSFW, slightly less-than-objective 2014 report below. Peter Weber