Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recently took a giant step backward in history and in basic principles of justice, and now he wants to drag the rest of the nation with him. The object of his strange nostalgia is the practice known as civil asset forfeiture, under which police confiscate private property from people they suspect of being drug dealers or other criminals.
The key word is “suspect.” Police agencies have long exploited loopholes in criminal law and procedure to seize cash, cars and other property without ever winning a criminal conviction or even, in some cases, filing a charge. In the past, police have simply taken property from travelers at airports or on highways after searches. In an outrageous reversal of American criminal justice standards, the owners bore the burden of proving their innocence in order to recover their assets.
A March report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general noted that the Drug Enforcement Administration has seized $3.2 billion in cash in the last decade from people never charged with a crime.
Constitutional principles such as due process should not be treated as luxuries that can be suspended in the name of fighting drug trafficking or other crime.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when budgets were tight and the War on Drugs was in full swing, many state and local police agencies made asset seizures a virtually indispensable part of their funding portfolios. Abuses were so rampant that some states, including California, passed laws to limit the practice or to at least require a measure of due process before pocketing the cash. Police departments that bristled at the new rules then partnered with the feds on various joint task forces so their actions would be governed by laxer federal law.
Eric Holder, then attorney general under President Obama, finally began curbing federal abuses in 2015. Conservative and liberal proponents of property rights and civil liberties hailed the move. Some law enforcement agencies fumed. A year later, California imposed its own limits on seizures by joint task forces.
Sessions comes from the storm-trooper wing of the Republican Party, and on Monday, he warned of a new program to step up seizures. He followed up with a directive Wednesday, making guilty-until-proven-innocent seizures possible even in states that barred them.
Thankfully, there remains a liberty wing of the party, and it does not share the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for undermining due process. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) introduced a bill earlier this year to correct some of the worst abuses.
This is an area in which Democrats and many Republicans in Congress ought to find common ground. Constitutional principles such as due process should not be treated as luxuries that can be suspended in the name of fighting drug trafficking or other crime, and Sessions should not be allowed to flip back the calendar to an era of anti-drug frenzy that gave police license to virtually steal from private citizens.